Worcester may ease shoreline buffer rule Developer urges officials to relax restrictions

July 28, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A month after pledging to protect Maryland's distressed coastal bays, Worcester County's commissioners have sparked a furor by moving to ease a restriction on shoreline development.

Responding to the complaints of a local businessman and developer, county officials are considering amending a regulation that requires builders of new waterfront homes to leave a 25-foot strip of trees, shrubs and tall grass along the shoreline.

The 3-year-old rule is intended to protect the bays by controlling erosion and runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. It also aims to provide habitat for wildlife and native plants.

James Barrett, president of the five-member governing commission, said the buffer rule forces owners of expensive new waterfront homes to put up with "a bunch of weeds." He said he believed the bays could be just as protected by grassy lawns or landscaped ground cover to the water's edge.

But environmental activists contend the changes being contemplated would weaken one of the few protections the shallow bays near Ocean City have against pollution and degradation from booming waterfront development.

"What do they want -- some smelly cesspool in front of them or a fresh, clean bay?" demanded Ilia J. Fehrer, president of the Worcester Environmental Trust.

Barrett joined June 24 with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and federal officials in signing an agreement to develop a plan for protecting and restoring the four bays just inland of Ocean City and Assateague Island.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has pledged $2.4 million over the next seven years toward the effort as part of its National Estuaries Program.

A federally funded study this year concluded that the bays -- Assawoman, Isle of Wight, Sinepuxent and Chincoteague -- are as badly damaged as the Chesapeake Bay, which has been the focus of a multistate cleanup effort for 12 years. The coastal bays have been hurt by nutrient pollution from farming and development, the study found.

The buffer controversy began July 16, when Kenny Baker, a motel owner and developer, complained to the commissioners about the requirement, part of the county's zoning rules requiring that structures be at least 50 feet from the shoreline. The buffer is not to be mowed to ensure natural growth.

Baker explained in a telephone interview that he was building homes for himself and his daughter on 22 acres along Trappe Creek, a shallow tidal tributary on the northern end of Chincoteague Bay, the least degraded of the four coastal estuaries.

"I have an 18-month-old granddaughter, and this 25-foot no-mow buffer zone is going to be a harbor area for ticks -- particularly Lyme disease deer ticks -- reptiles and snakes," he said. "I don't ++ think any parent wants an 18-month-old grandchild exposed to these elements."

Baker's objection prompted expressions of support from three of the five commissioners, according to Ocean City Today, a weekly newspaper. A bill allowing grass instead of wooded buffers is to be introduced Aug. 13.

"When you have a two- or three-hundred-thousand-dollar house on a waterway, it is sort of an unsightly looking thing," Barrett, the commissioner, said in an interview this week. "There are some pretty decent ground covers that grow low and will protect the bay."

Only one commissioner, Jeanne Lynch, dissented. Lynch recalled that the setback requirement had been 80 feet when adopted as a temporary measure in 1992, but was scaled back a year later after complaints from developers.

"It's ridiculous," she said. "We've got the National Estuaries Program in here spending a couple million dollars to come up with a management plan for sustainable development in this county, and here we are taking out the most effective thing. A wooded buffer is the most effective thing for protecting water quality."

Maryland's 12-year-old critical area law, which regulates waterfront development around the Chesapeake Bay but not the coastal bays, requires a 100-foot buffer of trees and natural vegetation along the shoreline. Mark Laughlin, a state spokesman, said homes built before the law took effect are allowed to keep lawns, but the buffer is strictly enforced on new development.

Experts differ over whether trees or grass do better at controlling erosion and runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.

Rick Cooksey, a federal forester working in the Chesapeake restoration effort, contended that lawns are not as effective as trees and shrubs at reducing runoff.

But Scott Angle, a professor of agronomy at the University of Maryland College Park, said that properly maintained turf grass, such as fescues or Kentucky bluegrass, may actually be better than trees and other natural vegetation. The density of the roots and vegetation of grass will trap runoff and soak up nutrients.

Angle acknowledged that he has not directly compared runoff from grass and forestland but bases his opinion on his and others' research. He cautioned that in order to prevent nutrient pollution, grass along shorelines must not be fertilized and that, if mowed, clippings must be collected.

Both experts agree, though, that manicured lawns cannot match the ecological role of natural vegetation such as bushes, trees and tall grass.

"You're going from an area that has hundreds to thousands of different types of [plants] to a single one. It's going to reduce habitat for wildlife and for potentially endangered plants and insects," Angle said.

"You get ticks off of grass, too," noted Cooksey. "If [Baker] doesn't think so, he's not spending much time outdoors."

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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