Shore protection or harm? Controversy: Changes by a homeowner on St. Leonard Creek have some neighbors concerned about maintaining the habitat in the area. But the plans, which include erosion control, apparently are legal.

November 22, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

LUSBY -- Looking down St. Leonard Creek from Kent Mountford's home, you can almost picture the untamed wilderness that English colonist John Smith found when he explored this broad Calvert County stream nearly four centuries ago.

Dense woods blanket both shores of the Patuxent River tributary, with only a few houses and piers protruding. White-winged sea gulls dot the water; a gaggle of ducks skims the surface.

But just upstream, a Washington area doctor who owns 40 acres of waterfront has begun taming the steep, natural shoreline. Dr. Charles A. Engh plans a $700,000 erosion control project and small housing development.

"He's trying to make a mini-Versailles on St. Leonard Creek," complained Mountford, an ecologist with the Environmental Protection Agency. He and other neighbors fear the shoreline work will harm the creek's abundant fish and wildlife, and may destroy Indian and Colonial-era relics.

Engh, an orthopedic surgeon from Alexandria, Va., has been fined for illegally removing more than an acre of trees near the water. But most of the changes he plans apparently are legal -- a result of loopholes and inconsistencies in state law.

The case raises "important questions about the loss, and potential loss, of natural shoreline around the Chesapeake Bay," according to Mountford's boss, William Matuszeski, who directs EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program office in Annapolis.

"We have serious concerns whether such projects are in the best interest of the health of the bay," Matuszeski wrote in a letter protesting the shoreline work.

Engh intends to pile large rocks along two-thirds mile of shore and fill in the shallows with sand to create marshland. He also wants to add a pier, a boathouse and four new home sites to a finger of land that already has a house, an outbuilding and two piers.

Engh also owns two other lushly landscaped waterfront homes on property farther down the creek.

At the construction site, the sand sits in grayish heaps, and floating plastic fences anchored just offshore have failed to keep it from muddying the water.

The changes in the works "break my heart," said Mountford, who has lived on the creek's Osborn Cove for 22 years with his wife, Nancy, a marine biologist and orchid cultivator.

Maryland has had a law since 1984 designed to protect Chesapeake Bay by limiting waterfront development in a 1,000-foot wide strip around the bay and its tidal tributaries.

Under the Critical Area law, development along this thinly populated stretch of St. Leonard Creek is limited to one new home per 20 acres. Property owners also are required to leave a "buffer" of trees and natural vegetation within 100 feet of the water.

But the same law permits, and even encourages, property owners to try to halt shoreline erosion.

Experts say the steep bank is crumbling very slowly, and the homes Engh owns or wants to build are in no danger of falling into the water anytime soon.

"I don't think it's a real excessive erosion problem," said Claudia Jones, science adviser for the state Critical Area Commission, which oversees local enforcement of the law. But she said it allows for property owners to retain and even recapture eroding land.

Richard Ayella, chief of tidal wetlands permits for the Maryland environment department, agreed: "Whether I feel it's the right thing to do, he has a right to protect it."

His office issued Engh a permit in October to create marsh and place stone along 2,100 feet of shoreline leading into Osborn Cove, a shallow bay that separates his property from the Mountfords'. An application is pending for similar work on 1,400 feet extending into Rollins Cove, which also borders Engh's property.

Engh did not respond to a reporter's repeated telephone calls, or a certified letter. But Charles H. Emory, his consulting engineer on the shoreline work, contended that "we're actually doing something that should be helpful" for the environment.

Shore erosion harms the bay, Emory said, by smothering shellfish and underwater grasses with silt and polluting the water with nutrients. Marshland creates habitat for fish and waterfowl.

"I gather that most people would prefer to have nothing done," Emory said. "They have their property -- if they choose to let it go, that's their right."

EPA's Matuszeski acknowledged that landowners have the right prevent erosion but said regulators should balance those rights against the health of the bay.

"The cumulative impacts of many such projects around the bay and watershed pose a danger to the precarious balance of natural shoreline remaining and ecological health," Matuszeski wrote. He noted that another EPA official has calculated that Maryland loses 1 percent of its natural shoreline every year to erosion control activities.

Engh's neighbors are skeptical of official assurances that the impacts of his shoreline work will be minimized. They note he has been fined three times over the past five years for clearing more than an acre of trees and brush.

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