Relentless coastal growth

Worcester: Nearly 15,000 acres have been consumed by development in 30 years, threatening the county's fragile bays and raising concerns about setting limits.

November 06, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SOUTH POINT -- From her back yard, Phyllis Koenings has a panoramic view of one of the last nearly pristine stretches of Maryland's coastal bays.

Soon, though, Koenings will have to share her vista of waterfowl winging across the sparkling water. Just a brisk walk from the two-story Colonial where she has lived since 1993, bulldozers have cut roads through woods so 32 homes can be built. For those who can afford it, waterfront lots are going for $475,000 each.

The housing project, subdivided and recorded in the Worcester County land office nearly 12 years ago, highlights the hurdles facing state and local officials as they move in an awkward partnership to curb development pressure that threatens the five ecologically fragile coastal bays.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section about the state's coastal bays incorrectly stated the extent of ecologically valuable submerged underwater grasses in Isle of Wight Bay. State environmental officials say that with gains in recent years, about 3 percent of the bay's waters have healthy stocks of the sea grasses.
The same article misstated shoreline protection rules in Worcester County. The county enforces a 50-foot building setback from coastal waters and requires a minimum buffer of 25 feet of vegetation along the shore.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Obviously, Worcester County should have put limits on extending or renewing building permits -- now you've got new development under the old rules," Koenings says. "Some people have continued to do things the same old way."

The relentless growth of the last 30 years that has transformed Ocean City from a sleepy seasonal resort to a year-round money machine has gobbled up nearly 15,000 acres of marsh, farms and forest in the watershed of Assawoman, Isle of Wight, Sinepuxent, Newport and Chincoteague bays. From 1987 to 1995, Worcester lost 20 percent of its coastal farmland.

The county's population grew by nearly 33 percent in the last decade, and by more than 50 percent in the busy northeast corner around the beach resort and the bays. With an onslaught of retiring baby boomers on the way, nobody is predicting any letup.

Three-quarters of Worcester's 47,000 people live in the 175-square-mile coastal watershed. As development has intensified, water quality has suffered in the shallow bays, which average 3 1/2 feet in depth and serve as nurseries for many Atlantic coastal fish.

In Isle of Wight Bay, where almost all waterfront sites have been developed, underwater grasses that provide vital habitat for crabs and fish have all but vanished. The population around that bay has increased 71 percent since 1990, from 11,000 to 19,600 last year.

Similar growth is occurring around Sinepuxent Bay, where the population almost doubled in the last 10 years, and around Assawoman, which experienced a 59 percent increase.

Only Chincoteague Bay, where the watershed has lost population since 1990, has been spared the environmental degradation suffered by the bodies of water to the north.

Residents and county officials have been debating for years how to protect the coastal bays, even as development has spread.

While waterfront development around the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries has been limited for 15 years, safeguarding the coastal bays has been left largely to Worcester, a county that has not enjoyed a reputation for strict environmental enforcement. All that has begun to change.

After a well-publicized tirade this fall against weak shoreline buffer rules that allow housing to be built within 25 feet of Worcester's coastal waters, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is planning to seek legislation limiting coastal bays development. State officials say the bill will mirror "critical area" restrictions on construction along Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in 1986.

Worcester officials, who have been working for more than a year on a local ordinance aimed at limiting coastal development, reacted at first with anger to the governor's announced move. But after recent meetings with Glendening and administration officials, county leaders say they will cooperate with the state, holding off on their measure until they see what the General Assembly does next year.

"We have a mutual understanding," says J. Charles Fox, state secretary of natural resources. "But the governor has been very clear on protecting the coastal bays, which are state and national resources."

The governor, who has made his Smart Growth plan a priority during seven years in office, feels "some urgency" about stemming the tide of development around the coastal bays, Fox says.

"People need to realize that things are changing right before their eyes," the secretary says.

County environmentalists say that message seems to be getting through, despite some high-profile losses -- including a decade-long battle to preserve the Riddle Farm. The 1,000-acre horse farm, with 600 acres of woods across Isle of Wight Bay from Ocean City, soon will be a 600-unit golf course community.

Jeanne Lynch, a slow-growth activist who was elected to the county Board of Commissioners in 1990, says the political culture once dominated by the development community has come to accept the necessity of controlling growth.

"It's hard to imagine now just how much attitudes have changed," says Lynch. "The word `environmentalist' is no longer a dirty word in Worcester. From the outside, it might not look like it, but we have come light years."

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