Developer named to Shore planning panel Choice raises concern about coastal bays

December 13, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Political friction over development along Maryland's threatened coastal bays flared this week as Worcester County officials replaced an environmentally oriented homebuilder on the planning board with an outspoken businessman who has been sued for clearing trees from the shoreline of his waterfront home.

Meeting behind closed doors Tuesday, the Worcester county commissioners voted 4-1 to name Kenny Baker to the planning board, which reviews zoning and land use issues.

Baker is a motel owner and developer who has pressed the county to ease its development regulations.

"I think they need some balance on that board," James G. Barrett, president of the commissioners, said yesterday in confirming the five-year appointment.

Baker replaces Ron Cascio, a builder who also is on the board of the Worcester Environmental Trust, an activist group.

Barrett, a Berlin auto dealer, said he tapped Baker for the seven-member panel because "he's very strong on property rights."

The commission president said local environmentalists were "a little one-sided" in seeking to put limits on growth in the county, which includes Ocean City.

Within the past six months, the commissioners have moved to ease review of small developments and to alter the county's comprehensive plan.

The blueprint for growth now stresses that environmental protections should not interfere with property rights or the county's efforts to promote resort tourism by building golf courses.

Environmentalists said yesterday that Baker's appointment is the latest troubling sign that elected county officials are on a collision course with plans to protect the five shallow coastal bays that have been degraded by farming and development.

The county joined last year with state and federal officials in pledging to restore the inland bays, which, like the Chesapeake Bay, suffer from nutrient pollution, loss of wetlands and declines in some fish species.

"What is the county going to look like in another 20 years?" asked Jeanne Lynch, the sole dissenter to Baker's appointment among the commissioners and an advocate of tighter controls on development. "I'm really demoralized."

Baker triggered a controversy over coastal bay protections last year when he lobbied the commissioners to ease a county requirement that waterfront property owners maintain a 25-foot vegetated buffer along the shore, one-fourth the setback required along the Chesapeake.

With only Lynch opposed, the commissioners initially favored Baker's proposal. They backed off after The Sun revealed that trees and shrubbery had been removed from Baker's property )) along Trappe Creek, a tributary of Chincoteague Bay where he has built homes for himself and his daughter's family.

County officials said Baker had not violated the local shoreline protection law. He has since submitted an acceptable plan for replanting trees, shrubs and grass down to the water, said Ed Tudor, the county planning director.

The environmental trust, which has frequently criticized county development policies, sued Baker, trying to force him to replace what he had removed. The trust accused Baker of violating a 22-year-old easement, or private deed restriction, barring the cutting of trees within 50 feet of the water on his property.

A trial in Worcester County Circuit Court is scheduled for April, said K. King Burnett, lawyer for the trust.

"Local enforcement has just gone by the wayside," said Ilia Fehrer, head of the environmental trust, who also sits on the planning commission. Its members are paid $25 a meeting.

Barrett, the commissioners' president, defended his choice of Baker and criticized Cascio and Fehrer for pursuing their legal dispute with Baker.

"I've never committed any wrongdoing," Baker said yesterday. He said he saw no need to tighten limits on waterfront development to protect the coastal bays.

"We're all for the environment," he said, noting that his family has lived in Worcester for nine generations. "We all want to preserve that heritage, but we have to coexist with individual rights."

Cascio, nominated by Lynch two years ago to fill a vacancy on the planning commission, branded as "absolutely ridiculous" criticism that he had been anti-development.

"I'm in the business of land-use planning," he said. "It's not [that] I'm a tree hugger."

Cascio said that in serving on the planning panel he had tried to balance environmental concerns with development needs.

"I believe in the United States Constitution, support it wholly, and also understand that along with property rights go certain responsibilities," he said.

Pub Date: 12/13/97

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