Celebrating 40 Years of Smart Growth in St. Charles

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

(Note: This is the first is a series of posts about the development of St. Charles since Docket 90, our development agreement with Charles County, was signed in in 1972, and how our residents have made our communities thrive.)

In 1970, after more than a decade of planning and with the threads of home development underway, the community of St. Charles received approval from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as one of five “New  Communities” eligible for federal guaranties for private funding.  The next step for St. Charles  was to upgrade the existing zoning for the 9,100 acre property and in 1972, after the required public hearings, St. Charles received approval from Charles County as a “Planned Unit Development”.

This landmark agreement, termed Docket 90, along with the Master Plan, provided for the development of a community that would fulfill the vision of then owner Interstate General Corporation (IGC).  IGC became the predecessor to American Community Properties Trust, which was purchased in 2009 by Federal Capital Partners, a privately held real estate investment firm. Four decades after its conception as an original smart growth community, St. Charles remains an outstanding example of how large scale planned development can meet the evolving and sometimes competing needs and desires of homebuyers, county governments seeking to maximize their tax base, and advocates of land preservation.
The vision for St. Charles was forged by IGC and endorsed by HUD and Charles County, which foresaw a community with homes of all sizes and architectural styles built around schools and village shopping centers with access to walking paths, parks and the amenities that knit neighborhoods together.  Nobody was talking about mixed-use or “smart growth” or sustainability in 1972, but St. Charles went on to become one of the three largest master-planned communities in the Washington, DC area. 40 years later, in the words of original engineer on the project, Tom Shafer, “The vision we had in the beginning has really worked --- about as well as any plan could over this period of time.”  Shafer, who today remains a part of the St. Charles Planning and Review Board, credits the ongoing success of the 9,100 acre community, now the largest population center in Charles County, partly on the accuracy and vision of its founders and also on the relationship forged and maintained with Charles County. “As can be expected, the developer and the county at times had different interpretations on a provision in Docket 90, but we always managed to reach an agreement, make the necessary amendment, and maintain the integrity of  the Master Plan. We [at St. Charles] always kept our word with the County and always paid our own way, working to become not just an island of neighborhoods but a contributor to life in Charles County in every way.”
Jay Parker of Parker Rodriquez, who was one of the original planners for St. Charles, came east from Denver for the firm to “just get things set up” and ended up staying and building a career with St. Charles and then with other award-winning master-planned communities. “The thing that’s really made St. Charles different through the years is the careful master-planning which is much different than a PUD (Planned Unit Development),” Parker commented in a recent interview. He continued, “From the beginning, the planners of St. Charles had a vision for a community that included affordable, market and upper tier housing as well as a commercial and retail base to provide a diverse and amenity rich community experience and be an integrated part of the Charles County economy.”
Today, of the  17 New Communities eventually approved by HUD, only St. Charles and the community of Woodlands, TX continue on in their envisioned form. From apartments and townhomes to luxurious single family homes and lushly canopied neighborhoods, families of all types have come to call St. Charles home over the years. Besides the original neighborhood playgrounds and parks, St. Charles has become home to a minor league stadium, is watching the construction of one of the most technologically advanced high schools in the state, has raised the bar for energy efficiency in both residential and commercial buildings and attracts residents from all around Southern Maryland to listen to music and enjoy a Farmer’s Market on a summer night. From the Pioneer’s Club, where seniors and longtime St. Charles residents enjoy monthly luncheons to discuss current events, celebrate our armed forces or just share good food with good friends to hobby clubs, running groups and swim meets, St. Charles has become the community of choice in Southern Maryland.
In the past 18 months, our community has been profiled in The Washington Post, recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation’s Top Bargains for Retirees and was last month named one of CNN’s Money Magazine’s Top Twenty Small Cities to Live in America. Our local hospital, Civista, in La Plata, was recently named one of the top two hospitals in Maryland and among the top twenty nationally.  Our growth in jobs and business has landed us 11th on the American Community Survey (based on the US Census) list of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. And even more importantly, to many of us, our own Southern Maryland Blue Crabs have been selected to host the 2013 Atlantic League All-Star Game!
According to Jay Parker, “Time and again, it has been clear that people prefer to live in mixed-use, master-planned communities.  They offer not only a better lifestyle but are safer investments and weather the ups and downs of the housing economy better.”
Is there any greater affirmation of the 40-year old vision for St. Charles than the sense of community, growing economy and expanding opportunities experienced today? Over the coming months, watch the St. Charles website blog for additional pieces of the St. Charles development story as we celebrate our 40th anniversary in what is today the fastest growing community in Charles County.