Op-ed Response: Mitchell uses school budget cuts to slam conservationists, push developers' agenda

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By Jay Falstad

A recent op-ed by Clayton A. Mitchell blames “preservationists” and the prior County Commissioners for the fiscal pressures driving deep cuts in the County’s education expenditures. Mitchell’s claim is that the Four Seasons development on Kent Island (opposed by Governor O’Malley and the Board of Public Works) and the federal anti-terrorism training center in Ruthsburg (withdrawn by the Obama Administration and Senator Mikulski) would have been catalysts to “jump start and fuel the local economy”.

Mitchell crosses party lines to invoke William Buckley, so let me do the same from the other direction and quote Patrick Moynihan: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." Mitchell has his facts wrong when he claims that significant economic benefits would have flowed from these two projects.

Four Seasons: This residential development project, on Kent Island 2 miles from the Bay Bridge, would be the largest conversion of Critical Area lands to intensive development in Maryland history. On this low-lying, sinking island, half underwater in a Category 3 storm surge, the over 2,000 cars issuing from the 1,438 units of Four Seasons (including 30 high-rise condos) will further snarl the Route 50/301 corridor with their multiple daily trips – this on an economically vital artery of the State on which traffic is projected to increase 40% over the next 20 years.

How can one claim benefits outweighing costs for such a project? One does it, as Mitchell does, by simply ignoring the enormous costs that will obviously have to be borne by the transportation infrastructure, the Bay, the Kent Island environment, and the existing residents, many of whom are already prisoners in their homes when families from the western shores are trying to reach the beaches.

While he’s at it, Mitchell also ignores the will of the people, attributing local opposition to Four Seasons to a “small minority of vocal wealthy attention-seekers”. But the facts are different: the people don’t want this. In 2000, over 3,800 local residents petitioned the project to referendum (only to be thwarted on a legal technicality).

In both the 2002 and 2006 elections, Four Seasons was a big issue, and the voters threw out of office, without regard to party, all the County Commissioners who either supported or failed clearly to oppose the project. Moreover, during the 2008-2009 QAC Comprehensive Plan review, Queen Anne’s County citizens overwhelmingly supported “no new major subdivision development on Kent Island.”

Federal Training Facility (“FASTC”): Mitchell laments the loss of the “federal training center” without mentioning that the “center” would have taken over 2,000 acres of prime farmland, in the midst of a quiet farming community, in order to conduct “training” in the form of daily weapons firing, explosive detonations, high speed driving, and urban terrorism attack drills, for 10,000 U.S. and foreign national trainees per year.

When, utilizing FOIA, I got a look at the federal government’s own assessments of the project, I understood why they concluded that their tentative selection of the Queen Anne’s County site for this facility was a mistake. The site was right next to Tuckahoe State Park, and the FASTC explosions and noise would have, the government found, ”greatly impact[ed] users’ enjoyment of” the Park, as well as disrupted horse farms and agriculture for miles around the site. These costs, ignored by Mitchell, would have significantly damaged two of the County’s biggest economic assets, farming and tourism.

The government’s overall assessment of the fiscal impact of FASTC in Queen Anne’s County is worth quoting. Balancing the benefits and the costs, it found that FASTC “would have a minor, adverse impact on Queen Anne’s County’s fiscal resources in the short-term and the long-term”. Yes, you read that right: they said adverse effect – pretty different from Mitchell’s “catalyst to jump start and fuel the local economy”.

To paraphrase Moynihan, the developer interests are entitled to their own opinions, but the facts are something else.

Jay Falstad is Executive Director of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association.
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