In tidal Md., tension on the edges Shoreline: Who controls the points at which land meets water has long been a source of contention here. But broader issues drive the debate.

On the Bay

August 09, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE WRITER JOHN Barth once mused about sailing trips to a charming Chesapeake creek. Some tacky homes on one shore always diminished his view -- until he moved into one, from which the view was dandy.

Lookers-in, lookers-out; haves and have-nots; marsh lovers and bulk-headers -- tensions over our defining, labyrinthine edges of land and water are the stuff of life in tidal Maryland.

Though the Chesapeake claims the bulk of that waterfront, it is along Worcester County's beaches and bays that passions over control of the edges often have flashed hottest.

Schemes to parcel Assateague Island among private lot owners and concessions, dating from the 1930s, finally led to its protection as a National Seashore decades later.

Local developers' massive shoreline filling along the bays behind Ocean City was key to Maryland's enacting one of the nation's pioneer wetlands laws in 1970.

A trend by local gentry to usurp Ocean City's beach for private homes led in 1975 to the state's imposing a building limit line west of the dunes.

In 1984 it was the Chesapeake fringe that made headlines. A new Critical Area Act restricted private development for 1,000 feet inland, preserving a 100-foot buffer of natural vegetation closest to the edge.

Left out were Worcester's bays. Why? Architects of the Critical Area law have varied recollections:

With Shore politicians hopping mad at more public control of the Chesapeake waterfront, why invite an additional fight from places that didn't even drain into the bay?

More novel was the "safety valve" theory. As a magnet for Marylanders' recreational needs, O.C. and vicinity, already much altered from nature, would take pressure off the remaining unspoiled Chesapeake edges.

In reality, the coastal bays still had unspoiled shoreline, and Worcester in 1993 enacted a weak version of the Critical Area Act, a 25-foot natural buffer.

This brings us up to last week's column. A majority of the county's commissioners appear to be backing a bill to let a local developer and other waterfront owners supplant nature with lawns or landscaping conducive to unimpeded water views.

The public debate sure to ensue will focus on science and economics, on the values of natural buffers in maintaining water quality and productive habitat.

These are the technical underpinnings of the buffer, and the Chesapeake's Critical Area law as well, and ought to be enough to bring the Worcester commissioners to their senses.

Still, someday soon we really ought to acknowledge the deeper passions and broader issues that drive debates over our fecund, attractive edges.

John Costonis frames the larger issues well. The former dean of Vanderbilt University's law school writes about the aesthetics of environment in books like "Icons and Aliens" (University of Illinois Press).

Maintaining natural waterfronts, he said in a recent interview, is about more than filtering runoff or maintaining seafood production, vital as these functions are.

Such environments are more than physical entities, Costonis says. They are symbols, icons, which the dictionary defines as "sacred objects worthy of uncritical devotion."

It is not about just beauty, he says, rather about "familiarity, stability, community; people identify with their traditional, natural surroundings and are truly impacted when an alien presence intrudes."

There was a time, of course, when wilderness was so overwhelming as to be the alien presence, and a cabin on the waterfront might have been the icon.

But that balance shifted the other way centuries ago, though the notion persists that private property ownership carries the unabridged right to do as one wishes.

Indeed, Roger Pilon, a conservative legal scholar with the Cato Institute, argued in a recent Harvard law journal article: "Rights of private property are at the very core of a free society." Encroachment of public rights, he continued, risks overturning "the basic moral order."

Put more bluntly, we have Worcester Commissioner Granville Trimper telling a local paper that even if lawns do pollute the bays more than forested waterfront, the wishes of the property owner should prevail.

Pilon might be Trimper's gospel, but I'll take mine from biologist Garrett Hardin's essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons."

This holds that every individual (translate waterfront homeowner), in maximizing his own enjoyment of the commons (i.e., water views), may ultimately ruin the whole. We gaze out, across the creek and see -- ourselves staring back.

In fact the nation's courts, despite an active property rights backlash, increasingly lean toward balancing private property use in the public interest, including scenic and aesthetic values, Costonis says.

Nowhere in the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of private property rights is there a guarantee to the most profitable, or even most enjoyable use of land, where that threatens the greater public good.

I doubt that when we thrill to Assateague's dunes, or the Sinepuxent's marshes, or the forested banks of a seaside creek, that either pollution control or biotic productivity is our first or strongest emotion.

Perhaps it would help educate us all, lookers-in and lookers-out, if we were to explore all that is important to us about nature.

Pub Date: 8/09/96

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