IMAGINE PRISTINE beaches along the Chesapeake Bay: a clean and safe habitat for oysters, blue crabs, vegetation and nearly 300 species of fish thriving in the vast waters.
This vision came a tad closer to reality on Monday when the Anne Arundel County Council toughened its critical area law.
Landowners and builders who illegally clear trees and brush along the county's 527 miles of waterfront now can expect to pay a hefty price. Often, land is cleared just so residents can get an unobstructed view of the water.
The state's critical areas law, passed in 1984, sought to prevent the careless destruction of vegetation that protects the bay. Trees and brush provide buffers for the Chesapeake and its tributaries. Theresa Pierno of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation points out that these buffers "are critical to the protection of the bay" because they absorb nutrients that diminish oxygen in the water and they prevent erosion.
The critical areas law was passed to prohibit disastrous land uses within 1,000 feet of the shoreline. The state law calls for even tighter restrictions on land within 1,000 feet of the water.
But some landowners scoffed at the county's critical areas legislation. Property owners risked the measly $50 fine for the first violation and $100 fine for subsequent violations. And violators didn't have to worry much about that; the law was rarely enforced.
The council's tougher law increases fines tenfold to $500 for the first infraction and $1,000 for each additional day until the violator arranges to remedy a wrongful act.
A county environmental planner promised not "to be out there like the Gestapo," but officials should be vigilant. Stiffer penalties will mean nothing if enforcement remains lax.
The state and local jurisdictions have made gains in protecting the Chesapeake Bay over the years. We're still far from the vision of pristine bodies of water, but Anne Arundel has taken an important step toward that goal.