A county appeals board will decide today whether construction workers should stop building roads and laying sewer lines for a South County development that residents say will destroy acres of wetlands alongthe West River.
The West River Federation, a residents group, asked the county Board of Appeals to rescind a grading permit issued to a Florida developer who wants to build on 22-acres near Shadyside.
The group says officials ignored the county's own environmental regulations in deciding if the project sits on non-tidal wetlands, which provide wildlife habitat and a natural filter for pollutants heading toward the Chesapeake Bay.
How the county should define non-tidal wetlands was at the center of the debate during an 11 1/2-hour hearing that started Friday evening and continued until 6:10 a.m. Saturday.
Thomas J. Wohlgemuth, the attorney representing the West RiverFederation, said officials violated state and county laws by deferring on wetland issues to the Army Corps of Engineers, which uses a less stringent standard than the state and county.
"The county shouldnot be allowed to pick and choose which definition of wetlands it wants to apply," Wohlgemuth said. "This is absurd. They are ignoring the state law. They are ignoring their own law."
But Kathryn Dahl, representing BMCN Joint Ventures Inc., a group of four corporations that own the property, said the county has consistently interpreted itswetland regulations that way for years.
"All indications are thatthe decisions were valid and in line with long-standing administrative interpretations," she said. "(The county) is dealing with complicated and overlapping agencies. They have worked out this problem."
Construction workers began building the roads last month in the Back Bay Beach development, a project of 96 homes within the Critical Area, a protected 1,000-foot-wide buffer along the Chesapeake Bay and itstributaries.
Wohlgemuth said the property contains non-tidal wetlands, which, under the county's 1988 Critical Area law, merit specialattention.
He said county officials them selves had concerns before issuing the grading permit but ultimately deferred to the Army Corps of Engineers to make the final determination.
"We all make mistakes in everyday life," said state Sen. Gerald Winegrad, D-Annapolis."There has been a mistake made here, and it is up to the Board of Appeals to blow the whistle."
Winegrad, who is chairman of a Senate subcommittee on the environment and whose district includes the proposed development, said the county's own Critical Area map shows the site as a non-tidal wetland.
And William Love, an environmental specialist with the county Office of Planning and Zoning, said he found the types of soils typically associated with non-tidal wetlands when he inspected the site in April 1990.
However, Love said, he later learned that the Army Corps of Engineers, using an older federal definition of wetlands, had exempted the site from federal regulation.
David L. Hirsch, a civil engineer who worked for the developers, testified that he interpreted the Army Corps of Engineers ruling to mean there were no wetlands present. The county agreed.
Joseph Elbrich,the director of county environmental planning, said the county has deferred to the Army Corps of Engineers since it enacted its Critical Area law in 1988.
"If you can get a permit from the Corps, we willhonor that," Elbrich said. "We will recognize that as our measure ofcompliance to the extent possible."
Wohlgemuth argued that was "giving a break" to developers because the Corps uses a 1987 definitionof wetlands that is less stringent than the county rules or the criteria used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Love said county officials have been in a "quandary" since the Corps of Engineers shelved its protective 1989 guidelines and reverted to its 1987 definitions of wetlands.
The residents fighting the development also chargethat the property's owners have found a loophole in a 1987 county ordinance that could allow them to build more homes on the property than should be permitted.