Growth on horizon for Kent Island

Law: With much development planned in Queen Anne's, the governor plans to introduce legislation that would bolster the Critical Area law, meant to protect the bay shoreline.

January 14, 2002|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

STEVENSVILLE -- Just north of U.S. 50, there's a spot where two branches of Cox Creek wind past a point covered with loblolly pines, reeds and holly trees before flowing south together under the highway toward Eastern Bay.

Farther east, a flock of Canada geese feeds in a cornfield of brown and black stubble that stretches for at least a mile to old barns, a farmhouse and the broad mouth of the Chester River.

A few years from now, the cornfield and the reeds and the forest will be gone, replaced with single-family houses on small lots, and with townhouses, condominiums, offices and shops.

It's part of a huge building boom on Kent Island, where Queen Anne's County planners have approved or are reviewing at least eight subdivisions on nearly 1,000 acres, with an estimated 3,000 new homes and 1.3 million square feet of commercial space.

Much of it will be within the 1,000-foot strip of land around the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries where development is supposed to be strictly regulated by state law -- and all of it will be legal.

Eighteen years after its enactment, the Critical Area law continues to stir debate. Gov. Parris N. Glendening plans to introduce legislation in the General Assembly to reverse recent court rulings that he contends have undermined the law's effectiveness. He also proposes to extend similar shoreline development restrictions to the state's coastal bays.

One section of the law that allows some shoreline development has left slow-growth advocates and others stewing every time they see a house under construction somewhere near the water.

"If you believe the law was meant to stop development [near the shore] and see all this development, you can only draw one conclusion. It's not working," says Steve Carr, an Anne Arundel County environmental activist.

While the Critical Area law sought to limit construction within 1,000 feet of the shoreline to protect the bay's water quality, it also included a provision for a specified amount of development near the water.

A "growth allocation" in the law allows local jurisdictions to approve shoreline development provided it does not exceed their limit and it meets conditions set by the local government and the state Critical Area Commission.

It may be the "most misunderstood part of the law," says former state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, who helped shepherd it though the General Assembly.

The law, one of Gov. Harry R. Hughes' Chesapeake Bay initiatives of the mid-1980s, divided land within 1,000 feet of the bay and its tidal tributaries into three types -- Intensely Developed Areas, Limited Development Areas and Resource Conservation Areas.

Building is allowed in each category, but under increasingly stringent requirements, with only one house permitted every 20 acres in the resource conservation areas. Land within 100 feet of the water is not to be disturbed at all.

Growth allocations were written into the law, which faced a difficult battle in the legislature, as a "recognition of the inevitable," recalls John R. Griffin, then deputy secretary of natural resources and one of the chief lobbyists for the measure.

Hughes and his deputies knew that local jurisdictions, which historically have jealously guarded their control over land-use issues, needed a sop before they would acquiesce to state infringement on their turf.

"We had to make some adjustments to get it to pass," says Hughes.

The toughest fights were over how to determine the size of each county's allocation, says Griffin.

In the end, the affected jurisdictions drew Critical Area boundaries around 641,613 acres and classified 515,269 of those as resource areas, where development controls are most stringent. They set aside 18,162 acres in the growth allocation, and have used fewer than 5,000 of those acres since then.

Land within the conservation areas can be developed only after public hearings and reviews by local and state officials, who can require changes and additional environmental controls.

Many see the provision as "some sort of loophole," says Larry Duket, of the state Office of Planning. "But the growth allocation is not an exemption. It's not a waiver. It's written into the law. It requires public hearings on the local level and before the Critical Area Commission."

The Critical Area law was "never intended to stop all the development on the shoreline," says Sarah Taylor-Rogers, former natural resources secretary who oversaw enforcement of the law as the commission's first executive director. "What was meant to be done was to have local governments decide where the development ought to go and how it ought to occur so as to minimize the impact on water quality and preserve habitat."

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