Even as the state asks Anne Arundel County to tighten its restrictions on waterfront development, county attorneys are aggressively defending developers' rights to build there.
In front of the county Board of Appeals Monday, Assistant County Attorney Jamie Baer grilled, challenged and objected to a group of Lower Broadneck residents fighting the county's approval of 153 town houses on the banks of the Little Magothy River.
The county also recently joined a West River developer challenging another county Board of Appeals decision in Circuit Court. That appeals board decision last November rescinded a grading permit for 96 waterfront homes near Shady Side.
"It's not necessary for the county to take the developer's side so openly, actively and strongly. That to me is absolutely outrageous," said an attorney representing a group of residents fighting a proposed waterfront development. The attorney asked not to be identified.
Baer said, "As far as Anne Arundel County is concerned, we have our law and are enforcing it consistently."
But the county law seems to contradict the state's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area legislation, which requires developers to be more environmentally sensitive within 1,000 feet of the bay and its tributaries. And the county Office of Planning and Zoning is approving new waterfront construction in apparent conflict with the state law.
"There are some mega, mega problems where it seems expediency is overruling the intent of the law," said state Sen. Gerald Winegrad, an Annapolis Democrat and chairman of the Senate environmental subcommittee. "It's as if the critical area law were never passed."
Last week, the chairman of the state Critical Area Commission notified Ardath Cade, the county's chief planning officer, that Anne Arundel's 4-year-old enforcement program is too lenient and needs revision. Cade did not return a reporter's telephone calls.
In an April 29 letter, Judge John C. North, commission chairman, outlined 22 areas that should be tightened. Of particular importance are provisions dealing with "grandfathering" of building lots approved before the critical area rules were adopted, reviewing building permits for inland property and exempting subdivisions that had been on a waiting list for sewer service, North said.
The commission appointed a panel Wednesday to work with county officials to revise the program by Oct. 22. The state law requires comprehensive review every four years.
The county program, North said, omits important restrictions on grandfathered lots, including demands that development be kept 100 feet from high tide and 25 feet from non-tidal wetlands.
It also wrongly exempts subdivisions on a waiting list for sewer service, North said. Those subdivisions should be redesigned to comply with most requirements "insofar as possible," he said. But restrictions on development within the 100-foot and 25-foot buffers "should be fully applied."
Anne Arundel officials defend the county's enforcement program, noting that the Critical Area Commission approved it in 1988. Those officials are particularly defensive about the county's grandfathering provisions. Enforcing the law on pre-existing development plans -- where the owners had already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars designing their subdivisions and earning county approvals -- would be unfair, they say.
"There is nothing that I am aware of that makes our law wrong or incorrect," Baer said yesterday, adding that she was unaware of North's April 29 letter. "The Critical Area Commission has never told Anne Arundel County, 'You're enforcing your law wrong,' which it can do and has done to other counties."
Anne Hairston, a natural resources planner with the commission, said North's letter was not intended as enforcement. Instead, she said, it marks the beginning of the county's comprehensive review.
"Those are the changes we'll be looking for at the end of the comprehensive review," Hairston said.
The state Critical Area law has generated controversy since its passage in 1984. Waterfront property owners complain that the law denies constitutional rights to develop land; environmentalists say it is necessary to preserve the bay, which suffers when its shoreline is disturbed.
Unless the rules are changed, dozens of subdivisions, covering hundreds of acres, could bypass the environmental protections, causing severe damage to the waterfront and the bay, say residents and environmentalists.
"Anne Arundel County has a big problem," said Betsy Kulle, a Lower Broadneck resident fighting the Woods Landing Section 2 subdivision on the Little Magothy. "Of all the counties in the state to be involved with this, it's ridiculous that it's Anne Arundel."
Residents along the Magothy, South and West rivers have asked County Executive Robert R. Neall to pass emergency legislation "to repair the holes in the fabric of our critical area criteria," said John Flood, president of the Federation of South River Associations.
"Our point to Bob Neall was, 'If it's going to occur in October anyway, why don't you be proactive, take the bull by the horns, and do it now?' " said Peg Burroughs, an environmental activist on the West River.
But Burroughs said the county executive has not responded to their plea.