Chapman’s Landing Project Highlights Risks & Decision Making Challenges of Large Development

In an October 8, 2015, Washington Post commentary, architect and University of Maryland professor Roger Lewis explored the decision-making challenges posed by large development or redevelopment projects and how hindsight can show that a decision which seemed good at the time is not good in the long-term.   From the commentary:

But big plans entail big financial, environmental and political risks. They are gambles no matter how diligently developers, governments and professional experts work to ensure that big projects, private or public, are in the long run viable, sustainable and publicly acceptable.

A seemingly good idea today can look bad when viewed retrospectively, just as a bad idea can be perceived in the future as having been a good idea.

As an example, Lewis highlighted the controversial proposed development of Chapman’s Landing, a 2,180 acre tract in Charles County back in the early 1990s. [Before offering his perspective, Lewis also disclosed he was one of the consulting architects hired by the developer.]

The Chapman’s Landing tract lay within an area that was specifically designated in the county’s comprehensive plan for growth and development. Maryland Route 210, a regional arterial known as Indian Head Highway, and several county roads provide vehicular access to the hilly, mostly wooded property.

Nevertheless, from the outset of planning, a group of residents zealously fought not only the Chapman’s Landing project, but also the county’s established growth policy and adopted master plan.

Opponents thought Chapman’s Landing was a bad idea that had to be stopped for several reasons: to preserve what they called Chapman’s Forest and safeguard wildlife habitats, including an eagle’s nest along the Potomac shoreline; to protect the watershed, stream tributaries, flora and fauna of Mattawoman Creek feeding into the Potomac River; and to maintain the rural character of western Charles County.

Lewis argued that despite a strong Smart Growth design offered by the developer that would have preserved roughly 1,000 acres of the tract and managed on-site stormwater runoff, the proposed development was ultimately stopped by a permit denial by the Department of Natural Resources under orders from then-Governor Parris Glendening.  After the permit denial, the State ultimately purchased the land in 1998 for $28 million and converted the tract into a state park.  Lewis opined that this was ultimately a poor decision, even through it seemed like a good choice at the time:

Reportedly, the little-used park never became the regional destination or recreational resource imagined 20 years ago. A small, 50-acre parcel at the eastern edge of the tract, near Maryland Airport, was transferred to the county for industrial development, but that also has yet to be realized. Historic Mount Aventine mansion, built by the Chapman family, sits on a cleared portion of the site, close to and overlooking the river, and is used occasionally but has not been fully restored. …

In retrospect, was spending $28 million of state funds for an underutilized 2,180-acre park a good idea? Could development of the property, condemned as a bad idea, have proved to be a good idea? …

The Chapman’s Landing story teaches an important lesson. As we develop new communities or redevelop ones, it reminds us that what we believe to be good or bad ideas today may prove to be just the opposite in the future. The risks never go away.