Ocean City project raises critical issue

Regulation: Worcester County officials fume as the state moves to impose buffers on coastal bay development.

March 07, 2002|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - In the grand scheme of things, the 48-unit condominium under development at 85th Street here is barely a ripple in a sea of hotels, motels, townhouses, restaurants and bars built within spitting distance of Assawoman Bay.

But to many, the project on an old power company storage lot is a symbol, either of this resort town's need for state-imposed stringent development regulations or of the local government's desire to protect the environment. It depends on whom you talk to.

Mayor James N. Mathias points to the town's storm-water management regulations, landscaping ordinance and urban forest requirements that the project, Captiva Bay, will have to meet as evidence of official concern for the environment.

Erin Fitzsimmons, an environmental lawyer and City Council member, calls the project, to be built to the edge of a wetland and with plans for a pier that stretches over the marsh, the latest "in-your-face example of why we need help."

State and federal law protects the wetlands, but "we don't do anything," she says. The state requirements will "establish a threshold for fundamental protection."

Environmentalists have decried for two decades the damage by runoff from mushrooming waterfront development to the fragile coastal bays between this barrier island and the Eastern Shore mainland.

Federal and state studies in 1996 and 1997 found that the bays - Assawoman, Isle of Wight, Sinepuxent and Chincoteague from north to south - were seriously degraded and their shellfish populations depleted.

In June 1999, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and a half-dozen federal, state and local officials signed onto a $6 million, 10-year plan to clean up Maryland's coastal bays.

State action

But last summer, barely two years into the program, Glendening moved to impose the Critical Area restrictions that have been in place since the mid-1980s around the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries on the coastal bays, all of which are in Worcester County. Local officials were infuriated.

"The plan got hijacked," says Ocean City's mayor, referring to the coastal bays agreement. "We were living the rule. We were doing it."

Mathias served on a committee that was to develop regulations, and says they were short-circuited by the governor. He points to a section of the agreement that says the state would step in if the committee decided progress was "unsatisfactory."

"No one ever took that vote," Mathias says.

But the process was taking too long, says Glendening's spokesman, Michael Morrill.

"Slowly, slowly, these bays are slipping away," he says. "If we wait for a policy committee to agree to something it will be too late."

The governor's proposal, which would affect Worcester County and the municipalities of Ocean City and Berlin, would create a 100-foot buffer around the bays and tidal tributaries where development would not be allowed, and a 1,000-foot strip in which development would be strictly controlled. The buffers help protect the water by slowing and filtering sediment and pollution.

The law, which would apply to all developments not already approved, would require local governments to draft their own controls for the 1,000-foot buffer.

It would have little effect on Ocean City, however, because the town is heavily developed and there is no room for the required setbacks.

Yet that doesn't matter to Mathias, who is angered that the governor moved without consulting local officials and worried that more, stricter rules could follow.

"There is a balance between protecting the environment and protecting property rights, and I prefer for us to be in control of our own destiny," he says.

Key exemptions

He favors a proposal by Del. Bennett Bozman, a Worcester County Democrat, that creates a 100-foot buffer, but exempts Ocean City, Berlin and Ocean Pines.

But Captiva Bay, the third project in the last year squeezed onto a small tract of fast land surrounded by coastal-bay marshes, is an example of why the town's controls aren't enough, says Bette Phillips, president of the neighboring Little Salisbury Community Association.

"It's a money issue," she says. "What they care about is development. We need something to protect the marsh."

The project, five-story buildings with parking on the first level, is to fill the lot between 85th and 86th streets, just north of a power station, and run along the edge of a small marsh off Assawoman Bay.

The developer, Tom Monahan, plans to include boat slips, a point that has angered Little Salisbury residents, who fear the additional boat traffic in tiny Howard's Cove and the potential damage to the marsh.

Joe Moore, an Ocean City lawyer who represents Monahan, says the boat slips "have been talked about in concept only."

Monahan, who did not return several calls, "has been building in Ocean City and in this area for years and has an excellent record," Moore says. "We've talked with the folks in Little Salisbury, and we're mindful of their concerns."

Gail Blazer, Ocean City's environmental engineer, says the storm-water and landscaping requirements Monahan will have to meet are as good as the controls that would be imposed under the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law.

And if the General Assembly adopts the governor's bill, Ocean City will "come up with something" that the state Critical Area Commission in Annapolis will agree to, she says.

"We'll be able to show them across the bridge that we can do it on our own," says Blazer.

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