Historically, Charles County has been characterized by a number of compact settlements spread over a rural landscape. Some 64% of the county is established in forest cover as testimony to its rural and environmental character. However, within the last 20 years, suburbanization of the rural areas has emerged as a threat to the rural setting and natural environment of the county. In 1995, the population was 111,600 and is projected to reach 150,100 by 2010. The county has a fairly large designated growth area (development district) which includes Waldorf to the north, White Plains to the south, from the Rt. 301 area west to Rt. 210, and to the edge of the town of Indian Head. During the 1997 update of the Comprehensive Plan, the county deleted approximately 5,000 acres from the development district. The heart of the development district in the county is the Urban Core which includes the areas along Rt. 301/Rt. 5 to Middletown Road.
The county covers approximately 295,640 land acres. Fifty-six percent (56%) or 165,559 acres are zoned agricultural. Agricultural lands dominate the southwest and eastern portions of the county. The county has recently strengthened its participation in the state’s agricultural preservation program and the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program by requiring the use of TDRs for any proposed townhouse development.
The county has approximately 3,000 acres of county or municipal parkland, while the state and federal govern-ments have approximately 12,432 acres. Of the state and federal government parkland, about 50% is considered by the county to be active recreational land. The county adopted a new Comprehensive Plan in 1997 that recommends significant changes in where and how the county is growing. It notes an increased demand for trails and opportunities for greenways connections between park facilities and resource lands. The 1999 Land Preservation and Recreation Plan identified waterfront access, development of regional facilities, and hiker/biker trails as areas where the county needs to provide more opportunities.
There are several opportunities for locating hiking/biking trails and/or greenways in the county based on recent alignment studies done in 1998 and 1999. These trails are identified as the Mattawoman Trail, located along the Mattawoman sewer right-of-way from Waldorf to Indian Head, the U.S. Naval Railroad Trail, beginning in White Plains and running west to Indian Head, the Popes Creek Railroad Trail, running from Popes Creek north to Rt. 301, and the Gilbert Run Trail, running parallel to Gilbert Run and terminating at Rt. 234.
The county recognizes the economic importance of water-related tourism and will be seeking additional water access sites and facilities, especially along the Potomac River and its tributaries.
1) Gilbert Swamp Run
The Gilbert Swamp Run is a potential stream valley greenways located in the eastern portion of Charles County. The county currently operates Gilbert Run Park in the headwater region of Gilbert Swamp Run. Hiking, picnic areas, fishing, and nature interpretation are all available to the public. Gilbert Swamp Run is a 15-mile long stream which is channelized for much of its length. A linear trail system adjacent to the stream has been discussed. The 5.5-mile trail alignment would begin at Gilbert Run Park, extend south to Gilbert Run, and then run parallel to Gilbert Run to its terminus at Rt. 234.
2) Indian Head to White Plains Rail Trail
The Indian Head to White Plains Rail Trail is a potential trail along a rail corridor currently owned by the U. S. Naval Ordnance Station at Indian Head. Discussions about the potential trail have been held with the Navy and public officials. Currently, the tracks are used only for a dinner train, but the Navy wishes to maintain the option of utilizing the tracks for future rail needs; a rail-with-trail is an option. The rail corridor begins in White Plains and runs due west, approximately 12.5 miles to the town of Indian Head. It connects to DNR’s Mattawoman Natural Environment Area.
3) Mattawoman Creek Greenways
Mattawoman Creek is a proposed stream valley greenways. DNR currently owns three parcels (Cedarville State Forest, Mattawoman Natural Environment Area, and Myrtle Grove Wildlife Management Area) totaling over 4,500 acres which border Mattawoman Creek. This figure includes 1,600 acres of land designated as state wildlands. The greenways would link these three properties, providing natural resource and water quality protection.
The remaining sections of the Mattawoman Creek stream valley corridor are in private ownership. A combination of easements, other voluntary landowner actions and Charles County’s stream valley protection program could be used to extend the greenways.
4) Nanjemoy Creek
Nanjemoy Creek is a partially established greenways targeted by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) for the conservation of its unique natural habitat. TNC has established a 973-acre preserve in the upper reaches of Nanjemoy Creek. The preserve protects the largest great blue heron rookery on the East Coast north of Florida. In addition to the rookery, Nanjemoy Creek is habitat for the federally listed dwarf wedge mussel (Alasmidonta heterodon). Virginia wild ginger inhabits the uplands along with several trees unusual in coastal Maryland, such as overcup oak and basket oak. To protect the fragile habitat, the preserve is not open to the public except through scheduled TNC field trips. The tidal portions of Nanjemoy Creek are accessible by kayak, canoe, and small boat from nearby Friendship Landing, where there is also a one-mile shoreline trail.
5) Patuxent Regional Greenways
The Patuxent Regional Greenways is a partially established regional greenways stretching along the Patuxent River through seven Maryland counties (Howard, Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Prince George’s, Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s). DNR currently owns about 15,000 acres along the Patuxent River and is working with local officials to extend protection along the mainstem.
Two publicly owned properties in Charles County (Maxwell Hall and Indian Creek Wildlife Natural Resource Management Area) contribute to the Patuxent Regional Greenways. These parcels are currently undeveloped, although they may be used to provide public access to the river in the future.
The corridor linking Maxwell Hall and Indian Creek is not in public ownership. However, the buffer requirements under the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law provide an important mechanism for establishing a natural greenways. Conservation easements may also be pursued by the Maryland Environmental Trust.
The Patuxent River Water Trail is a potential water route consisting of a series of public access sites along the Patuxent River. The water trail includes routes running from Montgomery County to St. Mary’s County. The effort to establish this water trail is being led by the Maryland Department of Planning in partnership with the Patuxent River Commission and others.
6) Popes Creek Railroad
The Popes Creek Railroad is a potential 2.3-mile rail trail in the southwest portion of the county that would run adjacent to Popes Creek from the Potomac River to Rt. 301. A natural heritage area is located at the mouth of the creek.
7) Potomac River Greenways
The Potomac River Greenways is a partially established, multi-jurisdictional and interstate greenways. Charles County contains a number of public park holdings that contribute to this multi-state greenways project. Piscataway National Park, Purse State Park, General Smallwood State Park, and Ruth B. Swan County Park are all situated directly on the Potomac River. Chapel Point State Park and the county’s Friendship Landing property lie in tidal tributaries. In addition, the federal government owns significant acreage at the U.S. Naval Ordnance Station in Indian Head.
The vast majority of land along the Charles County portion of the Potomac River is privately owned. In 1998, the state obtained the 2,225-acre Chapman’s Landing property. This site is located 20 miles south of Washington, D.C. and has approximately 2.25 miles of undisturbed Potomac shoreline and more than 1,200 acres of forest. The tract also contains two streams which flow into Mattawoman Creek. Several public and private sector partners are developing strategies to protect a large portion of the county’s western peninsula, including the historically significant Mallows Bay.
7a) Potomac River Water Trail
The Potomac River Water Trail is a potential route along the Potomac River shoreline in Charles County. The development of this route is part of a larger bi-state effort to establish water trails along both sides of the tidal portion of the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. to the mouth at the Chesapeake Bay.
8) Washington, Potomac, and Chesapeake Rail Trail
The Washington, Potomac, and Chesapeake Rail Trail is a potential rail trail that would link Hughesville (Charles County) with Lexington Park (St. Mary’s County). The entire corridor is owned by St. Mary’s County (even the portion in Charles County). The Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland received a grant from MDOT to conduct a regional trail system study that will include this corridor.
9) Zekiah Swamp
Zekiah Swamp is a natural greenways running the length of Charles County. Zekiah Swamp has been recognized by numerous authorities as one of the most significant ecological areas in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Zekiah Swamp is part of the Wicomico River, which is one of the nine state-designated scenic rivers. Zekiah Swamp Run is a 21-mile braided stream which connects two state properties. Cedarville State Forest, situated along the Charles County-Prince George’s County border, contains the headwater region of Zekiah Swamp. The Zekiah Swamp Natural Environment Area in southern Charles County is located at the stream’s confluence with the Wicomico River. Private landholdings between these two parcels, while not available for public access, are largely undeveloped.
Charles County has an approved application to participate in the state’s Rural Legacy Program, designating approximately 65,000 acres of the Zekiah Swamp watershed for preservation. The rural legacy plan targets specific protection areas within the larger rural legacy area, specifically those properties north of Rt. 5. However, Charles County is seeking Rural Legacy area designation for the entire watershed within Charles County. The Zekiah Swamp is significant to Charles County as it consists of a large portion of unfragmented forest, provides needed habitat for a diverse list of species, is rich in historical value, and is home to some of the most productive agricultural land in the county.