Developer May Have Found Environmental Law Loophole

October 18, 1991|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff writer

West River residents fear environmental law loopholes will allow a Florida developer to build as many as 96 homes on 22 acres within the Critical Area, a protected 1,000-foot-wide buffer along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

County officials said this week that fears about the Back Bay Beach development, near Shady Side, may be justified.

Residents have asked to meet with County Council President Virginia Clagett, D-West River, County Executive Robert R. Neall and other state and federal officials 2 p.m. Sunday to learn how it happened.

The meeting will be at the West River Methodist Church Camp Conference Center.

Assistant County Attorney Robert Pollack said Back BayBeach predates most environmental protection laws. It was subdividedand recorded during the 1920s, 30 years before the county adopted its first zoning laws, he said.

The property's current zoning, R-2, allows developers to build no more than two houses per acre.

The County Council has recognized the problem presented by older, undeveloped subdivisions with small, substandard lots, Pollack said. In January 1987, the council passed an "antiquated lot law," requiring the owners of two or more adjacent lots to combine their properties to conform to zoning laws.

However, in December 1986, the owner of Back Bay Beach conveyed ownership to four different corporations -- all with the same Naples, Fla., mailing address, Pollack said. No one corporation owned an adjacent lot on any given street, he said.

Yesterday, however, county planners said that some of the original 96 lots, which face different streets, do abut one another in the rear. As a result, Lois Finklestein, a planner with the Department of Permits and Inspections, said only the site has only 68 buildable lots.

"What you have now are some long, narrow lots between two streets," Finklestein said.

Bruce Krain, an Annapolis attorney representing the developer, BMCN Joint Ventures Inc., could not be reached for comment yesterday afternoon.

Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, who sponsored the 1987 antiquated lot law, was upset when she learned that alarge development may have circumvented the rules.

"Boy, that's pretty crummy," Lamb said yesterday. "I think that is unconscionable. This is a major infringement on what the intent of the law was."

Other restrictions and environmental protections passed in recent decades also would not apply.

The county's 1987 Critical Areas law, which protects a 1,000-foot strip along the shore of the Chesapeake andits tributaries, ordinarily would place additional restrictions on the development. Bill Love, a county environmental planner, said abouthalf of the subdivision is classified for "Resource Conservation," which limits development to one unit per 20 acres.

However, becauseit was subdivided prior to passage of the county's Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas law in 1987, the restrictions do not apply, Love said.

The developer also does not have to comply with non-tidal wetland regulations. Love said he found non-tidal wetlands when he inspected the site last year during the county's review of a grading permit application.

However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates wetlands, says none exist.

Neither may be wrong. The Corps reviewed the site in 1987. Two years later, the federal government tightened its wetland regulations. Rather than re-evaluate sites under the new rules, as a policy, the Corps said its original judgments would stand.

"We did not override the Corps decision in fairness to the developer," Love said. "It was grandfathered."

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