Worcester damages public trust Ignorance: The county's commissioners are in a class by themselves in Maryland. They endorse actions and people detrimental to the environment.

On the Bay

December 19, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IF A GOVERNMENT panel on drug use appointed an unrepentant substance abuser to its membership, it would insult the public trust no worse than the message Worcester County's commissioners sent last week to those who care about the fast-developing seaside county's environment.

In the name of "balance" and "property rights," they voted, 4-1, to oust Ron Cascio from the county planning commission. Cascio is a homebuilder who holds the radical view that property rights also come with responsibilities to nature.

He also dares to think that weakening environmental laws in a county soon to expand its population by 30 percent could unbalance Worcester's already stressed coastal bays.

The commissioners replaced him with Kenny Baker, a motel owner, developer and loose cannon who pops off frequently about any protection for nature that might limit where one can cut or pave.

Say one thing for Baker, he's not just bluster. He practices what he preaches. He worked hard and successfully a few years ago to gut county proposals to leave 80 feet of natural vegetation along its remaining undeveloped waterways, for habitat and to filter pollution.

Every other county in Maryland, and even Worcester in the parts that drain into the Chesapeake Bay, requires a 100-foot buffer. But for the county's coastal bays drainage, where the development action is, Baker and his cohorts got the buffer down to an almost meaningless 25 feet.

But even that minuscule natural fringe became too much for our newest planning commission member.

Last year, invoking fear of chigger, tick and snake attacks where he was building waterfront homes for himself and his daughter, Baker asked the county commissioners to eliminate even the 25-foot requirement.

With Republican Commissioner Jeanne Lynch dissenting, the four others agreed to draft legislation to that effect; but Baker apparently couldn't wait.

Before public hearings could be held, much of the natural shoreline between his two homes and Trappe Creek was hacked down and poisoned with herbicide.

Dozens of trees, up to 20 inches in diameter, were cut, in some cases to the water's edge and below the water.

Baker told me afterward he had taken mostly rotten wood; but having surveyed and photographed the damage closely from a canoe, I must say his definition of rotten trees is suspect.

The photographs, along with testimony from neighbors who watched the destruction, are now part of a lawsuit pending against Baker by the Worcester Environmental Trust, of which Cascio is a board member.

The lawsuit stems from the fact that Baker's land was governed not only by the county buffer regulation, but by an easement, or deed restriction that expressly prohibited such cutting.

So it is quite a statement being made by Commissioners James Barrett, Granville Trimper, Robert Cowger and James Purnell -- dumping Cascio, whose organization is trying to uphold legal protections for nature, for Baker, who appears to have so unabashedly flouted them.

And unfortunately, what is going on here is more than just a statement. It is just the most visible manifestation of a determined gutting of environmental protections that has been going on since these commissioners took office.

Even before weakening the shoreline buffer rules, they endorsed a virtual witch hunt of county employees, allowing Baker to head a task force of developers and contractors who abused every regulator they had a gripe with, in the name of streamlining regulations.

One upshot of that is a demoralized county planning and permits department, whose chief enforcement officer has been delegated largely to administrative tasks, and whose director has been replaced by a former carpenter without much managerial experience or professional training in the planning field.

It may tell you something about the current department that the replacement director, Ed Tudor, could find no fault with the blatant mangling of the 25-foot buffer on Kenny Baker's property.

And it gets worse. The planning department has ignored a recent case of what appears to be clear forest-cutting violations in a development.

Planners have stood by meekly as the county commissioners eased review of small developments and redrafted county growth guidelines to make it clear that environmental protections must not interfere with property rights or the booming construction of golf courses in Worcester.

It is also becoming clear, says a former planning employee, that the commissioners want planners to find "every loophole" in new, state Smart Growth guidelines that deny funding to sprawl growth in farming and natural areas.

I have criticized several of Maryland's counties for being too lax on growth and environmental protection. Yet, Worcester's elected leaders, with the exception of Jeanne Lynch, are in a class by themselves.

I think it unlikely a Kenny Baker could be appointed to a position of influence over the public's natural heritage and quality of life in any other jurisdiction.

Why is this? Maybe one reason is that much of Worcester County, because it drains to the ocean bays instead of the Chesapeake, was not included 15 years ago in the progressive environmental stewardship of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

In contrast to every other Maryland jurisdiction, Worcester's leaders have scarcely had to confront all the ways human activities on the land affect water quality.

In public statements, the commissioners show their ignorance repeatedly, expressing grave fears about environmental rules the rest of the state has been comfortably living with for years.

Recently, a version of the Chesapeake restoration effort has begun for Worcester's neglected coastal bays, with several million dollars in federal and state money.

On paper, it is a good plan, and on paper, the county commissioners have endorsed it; but before any more time and money are spent, coastal bay officials ought to look hard at what their local partner, the county, is really doing.

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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