Two con-men arrive at the capital city of a foolish, unthinking Emperor. Posing as weavers, they offer to supply him with magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. The Emperor hires them, and they set up looms and go to work. A succession of officials and Councilors visit them to check their progress. Each sees that the looms are empty but pretends otherwise to avoid displeasing the Emperor or being thought a fool.
Finally, the weavers report that the Emperor’s suit is finished. They mime dressing him and he sets off in a procession before the whole city. Townsfolk, officials, and Council Members, not wanting to appear inept or stupid, say little. That is, until one child blurts out the truth all sought to ignore…that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all. The people, the Emperor’s various advisors and commissioners, and the Councilors all suddenly come to their senses, knowing they had been played by con men.
So here is the naked truth about Lakeside that everyone now knows: Talbot County’s approval of that huge, billion-dollar subdivision was based on a bald lie, fictitious and as empty as the weavers’ loom.
Contrary to what was represented by the developer, before adoption of Resolution 281 in 2020, the entirety of Lakeside had never, ever been classified by Talbot County for any sort of development at all—meaning it had never been reviewed with regard to roads and schools and traffic and public safety, or its impact on Talbot’s rural character.
Like beanfields all over Talbot County, that land was simply designated “UNPROGRAMMED” …not just “the southern 40%.” All of it. But approval of Lakeside was predicated on the falsehood that this unseemly project, no matter how incompatible with our Comprehensive Plan, had been considered and slated for development by Talbot County long, long ago. The developer’s point was clear: okayed earlier, it would be unnecessary and wrong—unfair, in fact—to subject it to another round of review. And so Lakeside got the green light.
For over two years key supporters inside the County continued to back the developer’s false claim that the County had slated Lakeside for development in 2002, mocked the very idea that the land had been “UNPROGRAMMED,” laid out numerous false proofs that the project had been reviewed long ago. After all, the real history was buried away in old documents no one would find, and so the County could get away with accepting as true whatever colorful story the developer wove, no matter how gossamer the thread.
But today both MDE and all of Talbot County know the truth. (By “all of Talbot County,” I mean the County Attorney, the County Engineer, the public, members of the Public Works Advisory Board (“PWAB”), Planning Commissioners…and County Council Members–whether all five acknowledge it publicly or not.) The Lakeside land was never approved or even slated for development in years gone by, and in 2020 the developer essentially dodged the legally required review for consistency with our Comprehensive Plan. We were conned.
MDE: Last Spring, MDE directed the County to adopt a new Trappe Area Sewer Service Map (the key development document) to correct mistakes made when Lakeside was approved in 2020. MDE confirmed the County’s admission that “Map 23” showing Lakeside as UNPROGRAMMED was the proper map, and that reliance on another exhibit (“Map 24”) had been a mistake all along. And MDE told the County to correct the mistakes that had been made “including the Lakeside development.” In other words, face the truth.
TALBOT COUNTY: The County Engineer wrote MDE last Spring that Map 24 “has created a huge mess,” and on numerous occasions since has confirmed that “Map 23,” on which all of Lakeside is shown as UNPROGRAMMED, was always the correct Map to use. In responding to the MDE directive, the County Attorney, no doubt with support from elsewhere, seems to The Talbot Integrity Project (“TIP”) to have done everything possible to dodge, obfuscate, and avoid the truth and its obvious implication, including drafting legislation that is about as opaque as possible. But finally, eight months after MDE’s directive, Mr. Lesher introduced a proposal that compelled the County Attorney to put this simple truth in a recital to Amendment 1 to the Resolution (R348) that is now on the table:
WHEREAS PRIOR TO RESOLUTION 281’s ADOPTION BY THE COUNTY COUNCIL AND FINAL APPROVAL BY MDE, FIGURE 23…DEPICTED THE LAKESIDE PARCELS AS “UNPROGRAMMED…”
There you have it. The Emperor stands naked before us. Even the County Attorney, perhaps the key defender of Lakeside, says it’s so.
THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE! Well, maybe.
Given that Talbot County and MDE both acknowledge that the basis for the County’s approval of R281 (and the reason it did not receive a proper review) was, let’s say, a ‘misunderstanding’ (in legal parlance, “fraud, surprise, mistake or inadvertence”), one might think that mistake would be rectified as fully and directly as possible.
It’s simple, really: change the Sewer Service Map to its status before adoption of R281 to the full extent possible (i.e., but for homes already completed). It’s what MDE directed the County to do—fix the mistakes made when adopting the Sewer Service Map in 2020. R281 never even purported to change the southernmost 40% of Lakeside, and since all of Lakeside was UNPROGRAMMED before, that portion remains UNPROGRAMMED now. Don’t pretend otherwise. And the sewer classification for the rest of Lakeside clearly was changed without proper review because of “fraud, surprise, mistake or inadvertence” — so change it back, but for the homes already built. (This is the path that about 850 citizens have advocated since last May, having signed the petition still circulating on-line by the ad hoc Citizens’ Committee to Fix Lakeside.)
But instead of simplicity we have an opaque mess that pretty much assures that few will fully understand what happened and why until long in the fog has lifted, if ever. It appears at present that a 3-2 majority of the County Council is reluctant or downright unwilling to modify anything that will affect what the developer got out of R281, con job or not. That is pretty remarkable.
Three Resolutions (R338, R347 and R348) and four separate amendments are on the table so far. They are difficult to follow conceptually and textually. They interconnect and overlap. Depending on what happens to R348 (and its amendment), R347 could become moot or require wholesale modification. Map 24 is not eliminated, even though on May 9th MDE requested just that. Important details are buried in a way difficult to see (e.g., elimination of the “approximately 84” house limit for houses discharging waste into the antiquated Trappe sewer plant). Formatting is hard to follow. Some recitals are untrue. R348 purports to limit the Planning Commission’s state-granted legal authority even to review the Lakeside property for “fraud, surprise, mistake or inadvertence,” but then Amendment 1 requires the Commission to do just that. In a comment to a recent Spy article, a gentleman called it all “word salad”. The Star Democrat’s reporter Natalie Jones accurately described Mr. Lesher’s introduction of the most recent amendment, but after reading the article (here) can you understand how it all fits together? Stand by for possible further amendments as the Council ties itself in knots, trying desperately to pretend even now that the Emperor looks fine.
THE DECISION MAKERS:
Only a majority of the County Council can adopt a Resolution, but the Planning Commission is the real decision maker here.
Talbot citizens should recognize that Planning Commissioners and the members of the PWAB (who provide advice on public infrastructure) are in a somewhat awkward spot. Council Members are politicians, but members of the PWAB and Planning Commission are not. They want to do what’s right on the merits, of course, but no one likes a rocking boat–and no one is anxious for discord with County leadership. Still, they have seen the evidence themselves, and now, with MDE’s directive and the County’s acknowledgement of Lakeside’s UNPROGRAMMED status pre-R281, they all surely realize the truth: that in 2020, R281 was approved only because of the “misunderstandings.” Yet it is also clear that some Council Members (and others they will continue to work with in coming years) are very adamant that Lakeside should not be curtailed in any way. What to do?
The Planning Commission is the most important link in all this because the Commission must first certify any resolution or amendment as “consistent with our Comprehensive Plan” in order for the County Council legally to adopt it. The PWAB advises the Commission on infrastructure…and not just water and sewer, but on roads, schools, and other public facilities– areas never evaluated in 2020. The Commission and PWAB are having a joint public work session to review and discuss this whole set of issues at 11:00 am on Wednesday, February 7th in the Bradley Room at the Court House, and the discussion should be of considerable interest.
The Planning Commission does not itself draft or adopt legislation, but they can refuse to find consistent anything that they know is improper, and they can also clarify what a Resolution should include in order to be found consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
TIP of course is self-aware that over a period of 33 months its advocacy has been not only direct, but sometimes edged towards the strident…which can be counterproductive. That is regretted, but it evolved in the struggle not just to find the truth, but to overcome incomprehensible resistance from some authorities to recognize how the process of approving this billion-dollar deal was corrupted. This is no NIMBY effort, but focuses on the integrity of Talbot County’s land use approval process, the character of Talbot County in both senses.
TIP has gone to extraordinary lengths to assure that its claims are backed by actual evidence, hard facts, original documents (e.g., hyperlinks in this LTE). Last September TIP delivered to the Planning Commission a letter detailing how Lakeside violates innumerable aspects of the Comprehensive Plan, with a 40-page appendix including transcript excerpts, photos and so forth. That important elucidation of how Lakeside is inconsistent with our Comp Plan has gone unrefuted—in fact, it has not even been discussed, forgotten in all the jockeying about whether the Planning Commission is even authorized to revisit Lakeside issues. TIP also authenticated on-line the whole sordid twenty-year history of Lakeside approvals, and even at this late date remains anxious to meet with any County official, Commissioner, or PWAB member to answer any question that remains.
Having already acknowledged that prior to R281 all of Lakeside was actually UNPROGRAMMED–so had never before received proper review–the new Sewer Service Map of course should revert to its status before R281 was adopted (but for land underlying existing houses). The project can be resubmitted in its entirety or in phases, for proper assessment by the Planning Commission when the developer thinks he can demonstrate that it is consistent with our Comp Plan.
At that point, Talbot County’s integrity is restored, proper process in reinstituted, the Comp Plan honored. Talbot’s 37,000 citizens are the beneficiaries. It’s what should happen.
Yes, there are plenty of ramifications that fall on the developer. His plans are in disarray. He will have to circle back and actually demonstrate to the Planning Commission for the first time that his development scheme, revised or not, is consistent with the County Comp Plan. Timing. Schools. Roads and traffic. And yes, even sewerage.
Meanwhile, the developer DID get MDE to approve a 100,000 gpd treatment plant that is under construction today. It will serve the homes already built and whatever comes later at Lakeside. The developer’s engineer, Rauch, already generated an engineering report on how that plant could treat wastewater in the existing Town which is so much in need of relief. Indeed, in November the Town formally adopted that concept as its current policy, and perhaps this turn of events will make the plan even more feasible.
But whatever the repercussions, consider this when balancing the interests of 37,000 Talbot citizens with that of the poor developer: It was the developer’s agents who wrongly claimed that Lakeside had been slated for development when in fact it was not. Who never mentioned that Talbot County’s only prior review of Lakeside resulted in its rejection 5-0 by the County Council. It was the developer, again through the hard work of his engineer and lawyer, who in 2006 obtained sewer construction permits knowing full well the County had not classified the property “S-1” for immediate development as legally required…and then in 2020 held out those improper permits as evidence that Lakeside had been approved previously.
The developer, Rocks Engineering, has been in the business for years and years and knows the ways of the world. (Two years ago the Washington Post published a link to an archived 1972 article reporting that the development firm’s founder had been convicted of federal charges for bribing a Maryland county official regarding zoning.) The real estate business is full of risk. Related to earlier litigation, Mr. Lesher provided an affidavit recounting that when the reversal of R281 was first advanced (back before construction of the first house began), Mr. Showalter acknowledged that his client Rocks knew he was proceeding at his own risk regarding a challenge to the legitimacy of R281’s approval.
The Emperor is naked. Because of a false premise Lakeside was never properly reviewed for consistency with the Comprehensive Plan. The right thing is to revert the map to the status quo ante, before adoption of R281, except for homes already built. When the project is resubmitted, as-is or modified, it can then be properly evaluated, including by the Planning Commission for consistency with the Comprehensive Plan in accordance with statutory standards.
The Talbot Integrity Project
Dan Watson – Acting Chairman