Lawn is no substitute for a shore woods

On The Bay

August 02, 1996|By Tom Horton

IT WAS A lovely paddle down Worcester County's Trappe Creek yesterday, the shorelines thickly textured with greens of maples, gums, cherries and magnolia, backdrop for the pinks and creams of hibiscus in bloom, and the occasional bald cypress.

Then the canoe nears the several hundred feet of nasty mess where Kenny Baker is building waterfront homes for himself and his daughter.

Baker, a developer who also runs the Francis Scott Key motel in Ocean City, is quite familiar with the county's zoning requirement that the last 25 feet of shoreline between a development and tidal waters be preserved in its natural state.

He has been working overtime for repeal of even this minimal sop to environmental protection. Every other county in Maryland, and all of Worcester outside its seaside drainage, requires a natural buffer of 100 feet.

Such natural forested buffers are widely considered an important way to protect waterways, from trout streams to seaside bays and the Chesapeake. They filter polluted runoff, retard erosion and provide wildlife habitat.

But Baker, who with other developers got Worcester's seaside buffers gutted, from 80 feet to 25 feet a few years ago, sees no reason why lawns would not do the job just as well.

On July 16, citing fear for his little granddaughter's safety from snakes, ticks and chiggers, he asked Worcester's five county commissioners to introduce a bill allowing grass to be substituted for forests down to the waterline in all new shorefront developments.

The commissioners, who earlier this year made Baker chairman of a task force to streamline regulation of development, agreed by a 4-1 vote to have such a bill drafted; and a majority of members are considered likely to vote for it.

Public hearings on the bill likely will be held next month. But yesterday it looked, from the waters of Trappe Creek, as if Baker just couldn't wait.

All around the edges of his land the 25-foot buffer is brown and dead, poisoned with the herbicide Roundup, in "error," he says, just two days after his appearance before the commissioners.

Trees -- dozens of them, up to 20-inches diameter -- have been chain sawed throughout the buffer, including many that extended into the tidal waters.

Some areas appear to have been hit with herbicide, then bush-hogged to the very edges of the shoreline. Sediment controls required by state law are nonexistent along several yards, where soil from construction is clearly washing into the creek.

Baker said yesterday he took mostly "deadwood, rotten old cherries" from the buffer.

I said the stumps showed no rot I could see.

He said a previous owner did most of the cutting before he bought the place in January 1995.

However, a neighbor, George Conner, says heavy cutting occurred in the fall of 1995. "The way the [green, adjoining] shoreline looks is the way his looked before then," Conner says.

As for the poisoned buffer, "what got zapped was an error," Baker said, adding he was merely planning to put in a ground cover of pachysandra closer to his house to filter runoff.

He blamed Seaside Landscape, Inc., of nearby Berlin for the mistake. I asked Ken Anderson, who runs the company, to

explain: "This is a small county. I have to make a living. I'm going to hang up now if you don't mind," Anderson said.

Baker wanted me to know that "nobody loves Worcester County and its beauty anymore than I do;" but he seems to fear forest, talking of "a lady nine years ago who got bitten by a copperhead on a farm next to me. And I have read deer ticks are getting to be a problem."

As for protecting natural resources, he said, "Well, I firmly believe humans are a natural resource, and they need their space to live."

The issue here is not just Kenny Baker's front yard, though, ironically, his shorefront is a prime advertisement for the need for the kind of strict regulation his task force spent time bashing this year.

The issue is that Worcester County is experiencing tremendous growth and development, and its coastal bays, while not yet badly polluted, are degraded and headed in the wrong direction.

Replacing what's left of the county's natural waterfront with lawn after lawn after lawn -- or other artificial landscaping -- is inevitably going to chip away at the region's wildlife habitat and water quality.

Looking through recommendations to the commissioners from Baker's task force (its members all from the building industry), I was struck by their call for county planners to stop pushing clustered development. This kind of development preserves open space and is what every modern planning department on the planet does.

The task force felt such clustering "causes large unkept areas of land public eyesores."

So it is that the Kenny Bakers of the world define nature as something to respect only on their own terms. The result might be pretty, or serve a narrow environmental purpose well, but it is never natural.

Baker possibly is sincere; but he is without doubt a dinosaur in his vision for the future of Worcester's environment.

The commissioners, who, in another irony, have just placed the coastal bays in the protection of EPA's National Estuaries Program, had better recognize that. They could start with a canoe trip down Trappe Creek.

Pub Date: 8/02/96

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