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State AG: Frederick, Carroll counties can proceed with different Monocacy River plans

Within a week of Frederick County Attorney John Mathias issuing an opinion stating that Frederick County can have its own Monocacy Scenic River Management Plan, the state attorney general’s office and Carroll County attorney have both issued similar opinions.

For more than two years, representatives from both counties — sitting on the joint Monocacy Scenic River Citizens Advisory Board — have debated and crafted a plan to try to serve both counties, under the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act.

But now, it’s apparent that both counties could pursue different plans, according to Carroll County Attorney Tim Burke and Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Rowe.

Burke said in his opinion to the Carroll County Board of Commissioners that Mathias “correctly” stated that Frederick County can have a “’Frederick centric’ plan for future development on the Frederick side of the Monocacy River only.”

“In like manner, the County Commissioners of Carroll County, under the Land Use Article, has been empowered to create and adopt land development plans for various regions throughout the county, which presumably could include the Monocacy waterfront on the Carroll County side of the River,” Burke wrote.

Two days later, the attorney general’s office weighed in, in response to a request for a letter of advice from Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll).

In that letter, Rowe stated that once the 1990 Monocacy Scenic River Management Plan was passed, the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act was fulfilled, and both counties can now have different plans.

“This provision makes clear that after the adoption of the original documents under the Scenic and Wild Rivers programs, the initial advisory boards were ended, and the existence and appointment of any additional advisory boards was up to the local jurisdictions,” Rowe wrote.

“Moreover, an advisory board is authorized, but not required, to make recommendations on policies, laws and regulations and there is no requirement that any county follow the recommendations of an advisory board,” she added.

Hough said he requested the letter as a constituent service, and that the issue is best handled at the local level.

“I guess my simplest answer is, ideally, you have one plan because the river goes through both counties,” Hough said of the River Plan.

He added that the situation, since it has dragged on for more than two years, seems “dysfunctional” and that property rights supporters and environmentalists need to reach a compromise.

“My advice would be, you just put everybody in a room and figure it out … we deal with this stuff all the time in Annapolis, and you try and have a compromise that everyone can live with,” Hough said.

Most recently, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners passed the 2018 plan in late November. The Frederick County Council rejected that plan, and will now return to the 2017 plan, with possible additions and amendments.

The issue has divided people mostly into two camps: those who support environmental protection of the river, and those who feel property rights along the river must be protected. The 2018 plan was supported by property rights supporters, and opposed by environmental supporters.

Both Earl Bell, chair of the river board and supporter of the 2018 plan, and Stan Mordensky, a former chair and board member who has repeatedly opposed it, said they would wait and see what amendments the Frederick County Council approves and sends to the Carroll County Board of Commissioners.

They remain entrenched in their camps, however. Bell repeatedly said he didn’t want to see a plan infringe on people’s property rights, and that riparian buffers along the river aren’t as effective as environmentalists argue.

Mordensky, however, said the riparian buffers, which come from natural vegetation, do protect the river from being polluted and there needs to be more of that language in the plan.

Frederick County Council leaders said they’re still working on a compromise between them and Carroll County, despite the state’s opinion saying they can adopt different plans.

“I think I have enough support on the council … to see if we can come up with one plan,” council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) said. “Because that would be in the best interest of the river, and it would be in the best interest of the quality of the water in the river, if both counties are working together to maintain it.”

Council Vice President Michael Blue (R) agreed.

“We really need to have a professional relationship when it comes to whether this is legislation or not, something that is this important, to protect such a natural resource,” he said of adopting a plan with Carroll County. “It just baffles me that this hasn’t been taken care of long ago.”

Stephen Wantz, president of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners, said by email Friday he and colleagues are still holding to the 2018 plan.

“We addressed the possibility of breaking away and have set the groundwork if we do separate from Frederick County,” Wantz said. “Currently, however, we are standing pat and waiting to see what Frederick County does. I maintain that a combined board is in the best interest of all of the citizens and the future of the Monocacy. But if they decide they want to go their own way, we will as well.”

Keegan-Ayer said that while it’s possible that Wantz and his colleagues will reject any changes she and Frederick County Council members make, it’s worth trying to draft a single plan for both counties.

“It’s kind of my personality. I always have hope a compromise can be reached,” she said. “I am sometimes disappointed, but that’s OK. I get up and try again tomorrow.”

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