Delicate balancing act for county waterfront

Construction to blend with conservation

June 06, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The sun glistens on the Back River, and motor boaters zip over the water. But there's trouble in paradise.

Byron Livingston, who has lived in Bowleys Quarters for more than 40 years, has watched the decline of the area -- the demise of the aquatic grass, the diminishing number of fish and crabs. Sewage from failing septic tanks seeps above ground and leaks into the water. "My wife said if I caught a fish and brought it into the house, she'd throw it in the trash," Livingston said.

For decades, Baltimore County has known that the waterfront communities in Bowleys Quarters and the Back River Neck Peninsula were in trouble from failing septic tanks. But the solution of extending public sewer lines posed its own threat -- allowing more development in a fragile environment that the state and county are spending millions to save.

In February, the Baltimore County Council imposed a moratorium on construction in those communities. With that restriction set to expire this month, the Baltimore County Planning Board last week approved a set of growth-control measures that allow most existing homes to hook up to public sewer while limiting new homes to lots approved for development.

The new rules, if adopted by the County Council, would pave the way for about 300 homes to be built in both the Bowleys Quarters and Back River Neck areas.

"We have a public-health problem and a development problem. It's a balance of equities," said Baltimore County Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller.

Community leaders, who have fought for public sewer service while embracing conservation, said they were pleased that the county has found what they see as a fair balance between the two ideas. "Everyone wants to protect the environment as long as it doesn't hurt their pocketbook," said Carl Maynard, president of the Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association.

The debate over how to protect the shorelines from further building while ensuring the health of residents is a relatively modern concern. Until this century, much of the Back River Neck Peninsula and Bowleys Quarters was wilderness that lured hunters and anglers. A few small farms and orchards dotted the landscape, flanked by roads paved with oyster shells. But as the automobile gained popularity, summer communities sprung up along the shores, offering a cool respite for city residents. The communities mostly featured one-room cottages on lots about 55 feet wide and equipped with outhouses.

A cottage for $2,000

Bill Smith was a boy when he moved to the Back River Neck Peninsula with his family in 1933 to escape the ravages of the Depression. Fish and crabs were plentiful, and the family had a garden to ease the difficulties of those years.

His family was one of the few that lived there year-round. "Most of the shore people came down in June and left in September," recalled Smith, 74.

A two-room cottage on a lot could be bought for less than $2,000. While the men often commuted to the city to work, their families stayed on the shore throughout the summer.

It wasn't long, however, before residents began adding on to their two-room shacks and living there all year. While the interior of the Back River Neck Peninsula remained wild woods filled with oak trees and honeysuckle vines, the area's appearance was different where roads stretched to the water; clusters of houses wedged together on sandy slips of soil.

In the 1960s, county officials recognized the health threat posed by the failing septic systems, but they hesitated to act. At first, the cost of the sewer extensions made the work impractical. Then came the realization that the sewer extensions would only spawn development.

In the 1980s, County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson spurned several powerful developers clamoring for the sewer extensions to their properties, deciding instead to fight off development by refusing to extend the sewer lines.

But County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, who succeeded Hutchinson, decided that the health risks were too great and that the sewer lines should be extended.

Work began on the extensions in 1991, but as the sewer lines grew, so did the clamor to develop.

Though strict zoning limits development on most of the Back River Neck Peninsula, landowners began petitioning the county for permission to subdivide and build on lots as small as 45 feet wide. Suddenly, for-sale signs went up around the area.

Rural Legacy program

Meanwhile, the county and state were struggling to preserve the coastal areas, establishing a Rural Legacy Area under a new state program that purchases land and development rights to stave off growth.

Maynard, who was trying to persuade his neighbors to protect their land by enrolling in the Rural Legacy program, encountered increasing reluctance as property owners decided to wait to see whether the sewer lines would increase their land values.

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