New bill to target coastal bays

Glendening to seek legislation establishing development controls

September 06, 2001|By Joel McCord and Chris Guy | Joel McCord and Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

Frustrated with the lack of development controls on Maryland's threatened coastal bays, Gov. Parris N. Glendening moved yesterday to extend Chesapeake Bay-style rules to those shores -- angering local officials.

Glendening told the Critical Area Commission that he would seek legislation during the next General Assembly session to create buffer zones around the coastal bays similar to those used to protect Chesapeake Bay. He said he has not decided on the form of the legislation or who would sponsor it.

The bays between the barrier island of Ocean City and Maryland's mainland were left out of the Critical Area law, adopted in 1984, for "political and practical reasons," he said in a speech to the commission at a meeting in Crownsville. "It's time for us to take the next step to bring the coastal bays under similar protection."

The speech was made two weeks after a Worcester County task force unveiled a proposal to protect the shorelines of Assawoman, Sinepuxent, Isle of Wight and Chincoteague bays, where regulations allow development to the water line.

Worcester County surrounds the four bays. The county commissioners have not voted on the task force plan, and Glendening clearly was skeptical they would take decisive action.

"They've been working on this for 16 years," he said in an interview after the speech. "What they've done is zone property [for development], plat it, then say `We didn't mean to do that' and ask the state to buy it. We can't do that anymore."

County officials said they were stunned that Glendening would approach the commission with a proposal that would pre-empt locally crafted legislation without consulting them.

"I find his lack of talking to local officials very disturbing; " said commission President John "Sonny" Bloxom. "He could just pick up the phone. But we're moving ahead with our own legislation. We've had a lot of people volunteer their time -- farmers, developers, Realtors, environmentalists -- to work out our own plan. It would be disrespectful of all their effort not to follow through."

Jeanne Lynch, known as an environmentalist during her 11 years on the commission, said Worcester's efforts to reach agreement on legislation protecting the coastal bays appear futile.

"I don't understand why he's declared war on Worcester County," Lynch said. "I don't know why he doesn't let the local process move forward. Worcester County is the model for the Rural Legacy program. I'm tremendously disappointed that the governor would do this without even talking to us."

Glendening insisted a critical area law for the coastal bays would not supplant local efforts, but "establish a floor, or minimum requirements" from which Worcester County could work. He denied that local officials were blindsided by his remarks.

"I have indicated to them my great concern on this issue," he said. "They know of my great concern."

The shallow coastal bays have nurtured crabs, clams and flounder and been a source of recreational boating. But mushrooming development on its shores has filled in the wetlands that filter runoff, increased pollution and led to declining water quality.

In his speech, Glendening said he was "outraged" to learn that the state was filling in 5 acres of wetlands to shore up U.S. 50 through West Ocean City because runoff from a new shopping center parking lot had eroded the road base.

He also complained of subdivisions built on filled-in wetlands south of the U.S. 50 bridge in Ocean City and of a planned subdivision near the Route 90 bridge in which the developer proposes filling in 5,700 square feet of open water to create uplands and 10,480 square feet of water and fringe marsh.

That proposal is subject to review, the governor conceded, but if critical area legislation were in place, the developer couldn't make such a request.

Unlike the county commissioners, local environmentalists say they would welcome state-mandated watershed development rules, a step they say would ensure long-term gains in water quality.

"We've always been concerned that if this is a local political decision, it can always be modified later," said Frank Gunion, a founder of Friends of Turville and Herring Creeks. "If the state comes in, it could be beneficial for everyone."

Glendening's plan to extend critical area laws to the coastal bays occurs two years after he and a half-dozen federal, state and local officials signed with great fanfare a $6 million plan to clean up the coastal bays.

He denied yesterday that the highly promoted clean-up plan, which relied heavily on education programs, incentives and disincentives to prod developers, farmers, homeowners and watermen to take better care of the waters, had failed to meet expectations.

Glendening also said he would try again to plug holes in the critical area laws created by three recent Court of Appeals decisions. In each of those cases, decided in the past two years, the court made it easier for individual property owners to build within the 100-foot buffer created by the law.

The governor's efforts to strengthen those provisions during the last session were bottled up in the House Environmental Matters Committee by Chairman Ron Guns, a Cecil County Democrat.

But the governor's longtime legislative adversary is gone, appointed in June to fill a vacancy on the state Public Service Commission.

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