July 22, 1993

Some Anne Arundel County Council members seem eager to believe the cries of developers and property owners that County Executive Robert R. Neall's new Chesapeake Bay "critical areas" bill is too strict. Already they've hacked a proposed 50-foot buffer around non-tidal wetlands to 25 feet, proving they care more about meeting minimum legal requirements than protecting the shoreline.

Before they relax any more restrictions, they should remember that such changes may hurt the property owner in the long run. No one's dream of a waterfront home will come true in 10, 25, 50 years if the bay and its tributaries are dead.

The state critical areas program is supposed to limit waterfront construction. The county's existing critical areas program has to be changed because it doesn't limit it enough; it makes exceptions for hundreds of waterfront builders who had subdivided lots, even if they hadn't started building, before the law was enacted. Mr. Neall's bill eliminates these loopholes and goes above and beyond the state guidelines. The 50-foot buffer nixed by the council was twice what the state required.

There are strong reasons for imposing more conservative restrictions in Anne Arundel. It has more shoreline under siege from developers than any other county. Yet the council has shown it is content with doing just enough to get by. It has adopted the developers' view: Why should the county be more strict than anybody else?

Even with the council's changes, however, it is a good, strong bill. Exemptions and grandfathering provisions have been tightened or eliminated. If you own land within 100 feet of the water or in certain habitat-protection areas, you'll have to get a variance before you can build anything. Opponents condemn the variance process as meaningless red tape, and if the county grants an exemption to everyone who asks, they'll be right. But if the county is as stingy with variances as it promises to be, we should see substantive improvements in waterfront protection.

Neither the council nor anyone else who would weaken the critical area law wants to be perceived as anti-environment. Everyone claims to be searching for "balance." The trouble is, this legislation is meant to be weighted in the direction of the environment. It's time the council realized that.

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