Shoreline protections may tighten

Anne Arundel County proposes higher fines for illegal clearing

Penalties often not levied

Stricter standards sought for obtaining building variances

March 12, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

It's a familiar story in Anne Arundel County. A homeowner buys waterfront property, discovers he can't see the water and chops down a bunch of trees -- perhaps without realizing that pruning along the shoreline willy-nilly is illegal.

The consequences are hardly grave, however. Though the county can force a property owner to plant trees and shrubs (or pay the equivalent cost), the $100 fine for a first infraction is so low that the county usually does not bother to levy it.

But beware: The enforcement arsenal may soon grow. The county is proposing to increase the fine to $500 the first day and $1,000 the second day, with the potential to ring up $1,000 for each day that a violation goes uncorrected.

And for the first time, contractors or neighbors could be fined for swinging an ax in the 100-foot shoreline buffer without a county-approved plan. Only the property owner can be held responsible for unauthorized clearing, but county officials say they are sometimes victims of unscrupulous contractors or overzealous neighbors.

The proposed changes are required under the state's critical-area law, passed in 1984 to help restore the Chesapeake Bay and to keep the shoreline from being paved over. Sixteen counties, Baltimore City and several smaller municipalities around the bay are supposed to update their compliance programs every four years.

"Pretty much every county is in some stage," said Lisa Hoerger, a planner with the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission. "They're either initiating a review, they have a draft or they're before their [legislative body]."

Perhaps nowhere does the program have greater impact than in Anne Arundel, with 527 miles of shoreline. Although development restrictions are most strict closest to the water, the "critical area" extends 1,000 feet inland from shore, encompassing 17 percent of the county's land.

In addition to stiffer fines, the county also has proposed a tougher standard for obtaining a variance to build in the critical area and a list spelling out the 52 permitted uses in the most pristine land classification, something many counties have adopted.

Conservationists would welcome the changes.

"The proposed law is much cleaner, much tougher and nails you right up front," said Jim Martin, a member of the Severn River Commission, which advises the county on environmental issues. "That's what we fought to have, and we're very happy about it."

Home builders are taking a dim view of most of the ideas, especially the list of 52 uses, arguing that it would unnecessarily tie the county's hands in approving projects and that it is not required by state law.

"We have problems," said Susan Davies, a co-director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

The updated program -- the first version was adopted by the county in 1988 -- must be adopted by the County Council and approved by the critical area commission.

A series of public meetings will be held this week to take public comment. Three sessions will be held: 7 p.m. Tuesday at George Fox Middle School, 7922 Outing Ave., Pasadena; 7 p.m., Wednesday, Heritage Office complex canteen, 2662 Riva Road; and 7 p.m., Thursday, Galesville Community Hall, 952 Galesville Road, Galesville.

Fines as deterrent

The goal, county officials say, is not to hit violators in the pocketbooks, but rather to restore the land to proper condition. Not only do trees improve water quality by absorbing harmful substances, they also provide habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Larger fines would be a deterrent to improper clearing, and give the county leverage if a property owner resisted repairing the damage or were a repeat offender, said county land-use spokesman John A. Morris.

Whatever changes are adopted, the county's code enforcement administrator, John P. Peacock Sr., promises strict enforcement. Last year, the county recorded 170 critical-area complaints, and issued 24 stop-work orders and 16 correction notices.

"These numbers are noticeably lower than the numbers generated in years past," Peacock wrote last month in a memo to Lina Vlavianos, chairwoman of the Severn River Commission.

Peacock said in an interview that he has directed supervisors and investigators to ensure "all, and I mean all" complaints are recorded and promptly followed up. Peacock held the position for nine years before leaving about three years ago but returned in November.

Morris said Peacock's predecessor, Damon Cogar, may not have documented complaints thoroughly, but he did work with property owners to correct such problems as buffer violations.

Responding to the public

Public pressure seems to have fueled some of the proposed changes, including the higher fines and the county's ability to cite contractors.

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