The start of Tuesday’s County Council meeting was like most recent meetings, as less than a dozen people were scattered throughout the first-floor hearing room at Winchester Hall.
But around 6:15 p.m., more people started to enter the room, eventually filling it nearly to capacity — and by 7 p.m., more than 30 people had signed up to speak at a public hearing.
That public hearing was for the 2018 Monocacy Scenic River Management Plan, one that has largely divided people into two camps: those who support it because of its protection of private property rights, and those against it because it doesn’t do enough to protect the river.
Testimony was mostly split between those two camps Tuesday night, but also included multiple members of the Monocacy Scenic River Citizens Advisory Board who drafted a plan in October 2018. The Carroll County Board of Commissioners passed that plan in November, but state law currently dictates that both Carroll and Frederick counties must adopt a plan for it to become law.
Lisa Bell, wife of River Board Chair Earl Bell, accused Frederick County government officials of “slow-walking” the plan so the last council could not vote on it. She also disagreed with County Attorney John Mathias’ opinion that the plan was a piece of legislation, meaning it could not be voted on in November, per the Frederick County charter.
“The Carroll County attorney has stated his opinion that the River Plan is not legislation. ... It would be sad to see any political agenda prevent the adoption of this plan,” Bell said.
Others, however, were concerned about that the plan removed vital environmental terms, such as green infrastructure and forested buffers. That included Karen Russell, of Knoxville, one of the first to speak against the plan.
“This plan has been edited to make access to information difficult and block regulatory tools that protect the ecosystem,” Russell said.
That opinion was seconded by Gary Magnuson, a New Market resident who said he once worked with Kevin Seller, now a faculty member at Hood College who is an algae expert and studies water quality.
“The board’s plan is severely flawed and does not do enough to address a main concern: its [the river’s] water quality,” Magnuson said.
Some, however, argued that even though the plan was not perfect, it was a compromise — and most importantly, it addressed the concern of many property owners in both counties, especially those living along the river.
Jason Miller, of Mount Airy, like others, also said that water quality in the Monocacy has improved over the long term.
“Anybody who believes the water quality of [the] Monocacy is the same as in the 1970s is delusional,” Miller said.
He added about the property rights debate: “It’s not fear-mongering, it’s not hyperbole to protect one’s property. It’s been an American tradition since 1775.”
Some who spoke Tuesday night focused not on property rights or environmental protections, but on the apparent divisiveness that has caused the plan to be heavily debated for more than two years.
Maureen Nichols, of Frederick, said compromise is needed between the two sides.
“Clearly there is a plan somewhere between the two that will be acceptable ... one that achieves the balance of existing property owners and environmental protections ... both the 2017 and 2018 plans include a lot of good,” Nichols said.
At the conclusion of public comments, council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer asked to close the public record, except for County Attorney John Mathias working on an opinion on whether Frederick County and Carroll County could have separate river plans. The motion passed 6-0, as Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater (D) was absent.
Before that, River Board Vice Chair Matthew Toms, of Walkersville, told council members he had been thinking about the possibility of separate plans fir the last couple of weeks, but added that both counties probably need to pass a single plan.
“Twenty-five, 30 or so years down the road, I think greater things could be accomplished by both of [the counties],” Toms said regarding the long-term value of a single plan.
After the meeting, Councilman Steve McKay (R) said he still has issues with how references to other documents were handled in the 2018 plan, including the 2010 Comprehensive Plan in Frederick County.
However, he added, “The plan’s primary focus should be environmental concerns and the health of the river. I have no problem with the plan acknowledging the rights of private property owners. ... We have to find a balance here.”
The County Council is scheduled to have a workshop about the River Plan at its meeting next week, on March 5.