Council considers bill on shoreline clearing

Measure is attempt to curb unpermitted cutting of trees

Not `like the Gestapo'

Homebuilders group OK with higher fines, against liability aspects

June 04, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Memo to would-be shoreline scofflaws: The Anne Arundel County Council is poised to jack up fines for those who clear trees and brush along the water without county approval.

A bill scheduled for a vote tomorrow also would make it easier for county inspectors to target contractors who flout the regulations and neighbors who chop down trees next door to improve their view.

Only a property owner can be penalized for unauthorized disturbances within the 100-foot shore buffer, even if they are not at fault. And those penalties are considered so paltry the county rarely bothers: $50 for the first day, $100 every day thereafter.

Under the bill, the first infraction would bring a $500 fine, plus $1,000 more each day until the responsible party tells the county how the problem will be corrected.

In addition, as under current law, rule-breakers would have to replant three times as much vegetation as they eliminated.

The council is scheduled to meet at 8 p.m. in council chambers.

County officials hope steeper fines will make people think twice before swinging the ax and wiping out trees that keep harmful substances out of the water and provide homes for animals.

"We're not going to be out there like the Gestapo, but it does help with people who are knowingly going out and violating," said county environmental planner Elinor Gawel.

The update is required under the state's critical-area law, passed in 1984 to help restore the Chesapeake Bay and to keep the shoreline from being overdeveloped.

Sixteen counties, Baltimore City and several smaller municipalities around the bay are supposed to update their compliance programs every four years.

The program affects Anne Arundel more than most counties, because it has 527 miles of shoreline. Although development restrictions are most strict closest to the water, the "critical area" extends 1,000 feet from shore, encompassing 17 percent of the county's land.

Some environmentalists have praised the proposed changes, but developers are less enthusiastic.

`An overreach'

Susan Davies, a co-director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, agreed that fines should be higher.

But she said it would be "an overreach" for the county to hold contractors liable. Nor does her group support spelling out 52 development uses allowed in the least developed critical-area land, called "resource conservation areas."

The proposed categories range from animal husbandry to commercial telecommunications facilities and include grandfathered uses such as yacht clubs and bed-and-breakfast inns.

Davies objected to putting the list in the critical-area law, in part because future revisions would require the approval of the critical-area commission.

Gawel said specifying what can be built in those areas would help prevent certain commercial and industrial construction.

Other changes are also proposed.

The county would have to show only "clear and convincing" evidence of an illegal buffer disturbance; current law imposes a higher standard used in criminal trials -- "beyond a reasonable doubt."

If the council passes the bill, which was sponsored by the Owens administration, it would go to the critical-area commission for review.

Code enforcement administrator John P. Peacock Sr. has promised strict enforcement. Last year, the county recorded 170 critical-area complaints, and issued 24 stop-work orders and 16 correction notices. He said those numbers were lower than in previous years.

`Remains to be seen'

Even so, some council members remain skeptical of the law's impact.

"They're not particularly large penalties, no matter how you cut it," said Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican. "Whether it will be effective remains to be seen, but it's the maximum state law allows."

Klocko was one of several council members who suggested imposing fines of several thousand dollars, only to be told state law would not allow it.

Gawel said she hopes it will not be necessary to often levy penalties.

"We usually try to resolve it without fines because it is pretty expensive to correct it [by replanting]," she said. "We really only fine when they're saying, `No, I won't do it.' "

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