Stricter rules on the horizon Changes proposed for Critical Area program

March 10, 1993|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

Proposed revisions to the county's Critical Area program could make it tougher for property owners within 100 feet of the water to build their "dream" homes.

But environmentalists and developers who got their first glimpse of the changes yesterday seemed to agree with Severna Park builder Kent Stow that "it's basically a fair plan."

"They really tightened up where there were loopholes," said Rupert Friday, a representative with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praising efforts by the county planning office to pull the revisions together.

The amendments reflect nearly all of the changes requested by the state's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission last spring, said Joseph Elbrich, chief of the county Office of Planning and Zoning's Environmental Division. The commission had asked the county to complete those changes by last fall, but has not enforced the deadline.

Mr. Elbrich presented the proposed changes yesterday to an informal task force of architects, developers, lawyers and environmental activists.

Chief among the revisions are stricter rules for "grandfathered" properties that were subdivided, but not developed, before the Critical Area rules went into effect in 1988. Another change phases out by July 1, 1994, an exemption enjoyed by developments on Broadneck peninsula that had been on a sewer waiting list in the 1980s.

The grandfathering and the waiting-list provisions have been the focus of intense legal wrangling during the past two years among the county, two developers and residents on the Magothy and West rivers. One of the cases -- involving 71 homes on 22 acres at Back Bay Beach -- is expected to reach the Maryland Court of Special Appeals this spring.

In both cases, neighbors have charged that the county's program violated the spirit of the state Critical Area law, which protects a 1,000-foot strip along the Chesapeake Bay from environmentally damaging development.

Mr. Elbrich said the new provisions will mirror the state law almost word for word if the County Council approves the package.

The amendments should go to the County Council by April 6, said Tom Andrews, acting director of the county Department of Utilities. Mr. Andrews is expected to take over July 1 as the chief of the county's land-use and environmental agencies.

The commission also would have to approve the changes.

Although the new rules would tighten restrictions, including those that prohibit most building in a 100-foot habitat protection zone along the waterfront, they also allow an administrative hearing officer to grant exceptions.

The rules set a standard -- stricter than in other zoning matters -- for these "variances" that requires proof of an "unwarranted hardship" other than cost or lost profit, Mr. Elbrich said.

Although generally upbeat about the proposal, environmentalists and builders qualified their praise, saying they had little time to digest all of the proposal's nuances.

Some worried that language is still too vague, imposing restrictions, for instance, "whenever possible" without specific standards.

But Mr. Stow said he worries the "rigid" new rules cannot protect the environment as well as the current program, which gives county staff more leeway.

Kathy Dahl, an attorney who often represents developers, believes an "unwarranted hardship" standard for variances is "too severe."

She said it will not hurt developers as much as it will individual waterfront owners who may have to scale back plans to build their dream house, addition or a shed.

"Developers will learn to adapt to whatever the rules are. They will just pass on the costs to the homebuyer," Mr. Stow said. "Most of the impact is going to be on the individual guy. Instead of getting a building permit, the first step now is . . . getting a lawyer."

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