OCEAN CITY - Long known for a laissez-faire approach to regulating shoreline development, officials in Worcester County and their northern neighbors in Sussex County, Del. - two of the fastest-growing in the mid-Atlantic - are taking a hard look at water quality in the fragile strip of coastal bays that stretch to the Virginia border.
Years after Maryland imposed stringent development rules for the Chesapeake Bay, Worcester officials, environmentalists and developers are struggling to come up with a local version of the state's critical area law for the coastal waters, which are not part of the Chesapeake watershed.
In Delaware, last summer's fish kills have turned into this year's pollution alert, with state environmental officials posting signs along Rehoboth, Little Assawoman and Indian River bays, warning swimmers and boaters about possible health risks.
Slow-growth advocates in both states blame much of the problem on burgeoning development, driven by a growing demand for retirement and second homes on much of the Delmarva Peninsula.
"Nowhere in the state of Maryland or anywhere else have I ever seen high growth coupled with environmental quality," said Ed Ellis, a petroleum distributor and chairman of Worcester's planning commission. "There has to be a way to protect the bays and allow measured growth. But there's tremendous pressure on elected officials."
The environmental decline of the shallow bays was documented more than five years ago in a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the two states. Researchers found that in most of the bays, water quality was so poor that underwater grasses - crucial habitat for fish and crabs - could not grow.
Municipal sewage discharges, household septic waste and nutrient runoff from farms, golf courses and yards have caused much of the problem, producing algae blooms that block sunlight needed by the grasses and suffocate fish by using up oxygen in the water.
Water quality was worst in the Delaware bays and better farther south, with large tracts of healthy underwater grasses in lower Chincoteague Bay, the study found.
In the years since, the bays and their shallow tributaries have experienced large fish kills, brown tides and other environmental alarms. Last summer, scientists in both states detected the presence of Pfiesteria piscicida, the single-celled microbe that was blamed for a series of fish kills in the Chesapeake in 1997 and has been linked to human health problems.
One encouraging trend - a partial revival of underwater grass beds - came into question this spring when scientists measured the first decline in five years.
"We have had some short-term successes, but this is not going to turn around quickly; it's more complex than a quick solution," said David Wilson, a spokesman for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.
The EPA-funded organization has rallied county officials, environmentalists, developers and others behind a plan for saving the bays.
The key recommendation in the 120-page plan, first presented two years ago, is creation of a Coastal Bays Protection Area, with shoreline development limits similar to those in place for more than a decade along the Chesapeake.
Last winter, Worcester officials succeeded in staving off a bill proposed by two Baltimore delegates that would have imposed the Chesapeake's waterfront building curbs on the coastal bays. But lawmakers insisted that Worcester come up with a set of rules.
"This county has come a long way," said Jeanne Lynch, a county commissioner who has pushed environmental protections during her 10-year tenure. "The population, including the development community, has been educated to understand that improving the environment adds to the value of their property."
Facing an October deadline, environmentalists, developers and others are looking to tailor development guidelines for each of Worcester's four coastal bays - Chincoteague, Sinepuxent, Isle of Wight and Assawoman.
"I think the development community is fully aware that we're on a tight chain, that the state will impose something on Worcester County if we don't do it ourselves," said Jack Burbage, a West Ocean City developer praised by environmentalists for an innovative 350-home community planned along Sinepuxent Bay.
But developer W. Kenneth Baker, a member of the Worcester planning commission, makes no apologies for the surge of building that has boosted Worcester's population by a third since 1990.
Nearly 75 percent of the county's tax revenue, Baker points out, comes from the heavily populated area that includes Ocean City, Ocean Pines and Berlin.
"I'm not ashamed at all of what's happened in Ocean City over the years; it's a clean industry," Baker said. "If the state allows us ample time, a bill will evolve that can accommodate both the environmental and business communities."
But environmentalists say time is short, noting the loss to development of the 1,000-acre Riddle Farm, where legendary thoroughbred Man O' War trained.