Disputes over land use could stall agreement on Chesapeake Bay plan

Some say Md. and Va. will reach accord

April 04, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Maryland and Virginia snipe at each other over land-use policies and issue angry statements about horseshoe crabs. They might even be headed to the Supreme Court of the United States to settle a dispute over water rights in the Potomac River.

Scientists and government officials on both sides of the Potomac say they disagree on only a few of many issues involved in the health of the Chesapeake Bay and insist they will "find common ground" on them. But others are leery.

Questions over land-use controls in a new plan for restoring the bay are "not issues that are peripheral," says Lisa Keir, of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. "I would like to be optimistic, but I don't want to be Pollyanna, either."

That plan, "Chesapeake 2000," is the first wholesale rewrite of the 1987 bay agreement. It has been open for public comment since it was released in December and is to be made final by June.

The plan sets goals for restoring the passage of fish to upriver spawning grounds, restoring bay grasses and wetlands, managing crab harvests and increasing the oyster population tenfold.

At issue in the agreement, which will guide restoration of the bay during the next 10 years, is a provision that calls for a 30 percent reduction in the rate at which forests and farms are developed by 2010.

Four of the five parties involved -- Pennsylvania, Maryland, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- have signed on. But Virginia balked, arguing that imposing specific numbers is tantamount to a state takeover of land-use controls that should be left to local governments. The state's objections to the land-use provisions are at the heart of many of the disagreements between Maryland and Virginia.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, has made Smart Growth and environmental protection the centerpiece of his administration. Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, does not believe in stringent controls on land use.

Gilmore "feels very strongly about property rights," says J. P. Woodley, Virginia's secretary of natural resources. "He sees it as an empowerment issue."

Sarah Taylor-Rogers, Maryland's secretary of natural resources, says Glendening has "taken a strong, progressive stand" on land-use and environmental issues.

"He's been solidly behind Smart Growth, farmland preservation and open space."

Land-use philosophies are related to Virginia's petitioning the Supreme Court to allow Fairfax County to build a water-intake pipe that would extend almost halfway across the Potomac River.

Maryland owns the river under a 1632 land grant from England's King Charles I and has jurisdiction over construction projects that affect it. Congress upheld the grant in 1879.

Fairfax County draws water from the Potomac under an agreement with Maryland. County officials say they need to get away from the sediment that flows near the Virginia shore to get cleaner water. Maryland legislators argue that Virginia created its problem by allowing rampant development and will have to live with it.

Two Montgomery County legislators introduced measures to require exhaustive environmental studies before building the pipe. But they have eased the requirements, partly because Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which supplies Montgomery County's water, is about to apply for a similar permit from the Maryland shore.

"Maryland is not completely clean, you know," says Kent Mountford, senior scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program. "Some counties are going wild with growth. No one is willing to teach the population that you can't just keep piling people on a raft. It gets lower and lower in the water, and pretty soon it sinks."

Mountford and others note room for hope.

Loudon County elected a majority of slow-growth candidates to its board of commissioners last fall, and a coalition of Virginia's growing counties and cities has been lobbying its General Assembly for tools to help control sprawl.

Environmental officials from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania met two weeks ago to try to resolve the dispute over land-use language in the bay agreement.

"There was a strong feeling among them they would come to agreement with regard to outstanding issues on land use," says Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program. "There are ways of working on this issue, angles to pursue that I think are very encouraging."

Even the dispute over limits on horseshoe crab harvests is a minor blip in the grand scheme of things, says Jack Travelstead, head of Virginia's Marine Resources Commission. He and Eric Schwaab, of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, were at opposite ends of a bitter argument in February when the multistate agency that regulates East Coast commercial fishing voted to cut the horseshoe crab harvest by 25 percent.

Schwaab had argued for a 50 percent cut, while Travelstead warned that any cuts would destroy his state's conch fishers, who use horseshoe crabs for bait.

"There's so much that we've been cooperating on as long I've been here. And that's 19 years," says Travelstead. "We agree on far more issues than we disagree."

Despite the differences between the governors and their Cabinets, the "public commitment to the Chesapeake Bay is simply too strong" to allow cleanup efforts to go awry, says Ann Swanson of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

Bill Goldsborough, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist, conceded the two states have different philosophies on some issues.

"But we look at Chesapeake Bay as common ground," he says. "So ultimately, we have faith that people will come together over that common ground."

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