FEW, IF ANY, development proposals in Maryland have generated so much opposition from environmentalists as the Annapolis-sized Chapman's Landing in Charles County. During
its nearly three-year review, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received more comments showing why this project should not be approved than for any other permit in the history of the Baltimore District.
The Corps' environmental assessment of this project, released late last month, implies that the impact on the Chesapeake Bay and its freshwater tributaries can be controlled by good environmental engineering. When compared in detail, however, with the studies conducted by environmental groups, a more disturbing picture of the potential effects of this development on Maryland's natural resources emerges.
What are the discrepancies between the two groups?
Less polluted, not clean
For starters, the developer, Charles County and the Corps have not promised clean streams, but less polluted streams. Not the protection of this 2,250-acre forest's assortment of native plant and animals, but a quarter-mile no-build zone around a bald eagle nest and a ravine wetland filled with very rare ferns.
Not the preservation of a prehistoric landscape complete with 24 nationally significant Native American Indian sites and a 17th-century Potomac River estate with a magnificent view of the river and Virginia's Mason Neck Wildlife Refuge, but the preservation of an historic home and the excavation of a few artifacts. Not protection for the upland aquifers which nourish Mattawoman Creek and its tributaries, but a narrow, 222-acre stream valley wetland conservation easement.
The Corps and developer claim that no endangered state or federal species live in the forest that is part of the Mattawoman Creek watershed and that only two species inhabit the Potomac River shoreline site.
Local botanists, however, so far have found more than 30 locally rare, threatened and endangered native plants in the Chapman's Landing forest; at least a dozen of these species exist in the Mattawoman Creek drainage, on land which the Corps recently permitted for development. Several globally rare species, including a freshwater mussel, may also occur here. The Audubon Society has found that the Mattawoman's forests contain some of Southern Maryland's most important songbird nesting habitats. The Louisiana waterthrush, which prefers the oldest and richest deciduous woodlands, has been spotted in the stream valleys of Chapman's Landing.
During its National Environmental Policy Act review of this project, the Corps studied only direct impacts to wetlands and streams, rather than the full cumulative impact of this development on the surrounding environment. A cumulative impact study would consider how this proposed community of at least 15,000 would effect traffic congestion and the loss of songbirds and other wildlife, as well as harm air quality, water quality, groundwater resources and the aquatic resources of the Mattawoman, the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay.
The Corps claims that the water quality of this important bay watershed will be protected by stormwater ponds, although these ponds will only collect perhaps half of the additional nutrient pollutants -- nitrogen, phosphorous -- and other pollutants that will flow into Mattawoman Creek if the land is developed as proposed. Furthermore, because most of the upland forest will be lost, the natural groundwater recharge of streams will be disrupted and sections of streams which now support spawning anadromous fish like herring will be scoured by erosion.
Maryland, meanwhile, is losing about 30,000 acres of forests, farmland and open space each year to sprawl. The Corps claims that the county's development district, which also happens to coincide with the Mattawoman Creek watershed, was designed to reduce the harmful effects of uncontrolled sprawl on the bay and the county's environment in general. By issuing a water appropriation permit to the developer allowing the pumping of up to 390,000 gallons a day, the state in effect is giving its blessing to this project. Still, this is only enough water for the first 600 homes. The Maryland Geological Survey has yet to determine if there will be enough water in the so-called new Lower Patuxent aquifier to sustain even this initial demand, or whether drinking water pumped from these geological strata will affect the water availability in wells drilled in the region's other already stressed aquifers.
'No significant impact'?