Responding to criticism by a state commission that they weren't doing enough to protect the shoreline from development, Anne Arundel County officials have launched an ambitious enforcement program, including the use of a helicopter to locate waterfront trouble spots.
Last year, the county was rebuked by the Critical Area Commission, which enforces a state law limiting development within 1,000 feet of the bay, for failing to properly enforce the law and follow up on reported violations. But Ren Serey, the commission's executive director, says the county has improved its enforcement program.
"Because of the volume of waterfront properties, it just seemed that it was kind of overwhelming," Serey said Thursday. "But now ... there is consistency."
After complaints from residents, commission staff members called a county hot line last year to test the enforcement system.
"There were people who were supposed to be dealing with these complaints who were not really clued in to the law," said Serey, referring to the way the county's program had been run. It has improved as a result of meetings and frank discussions between the commission and county representatives, he added.
Owens steps in
In response to the concerns, County Executive Janet S. Owens tapped a staff member to head critical-area enforcement full time and has dedicated space on the county's Web site to post violations as well as fines and mitigation. As part of her re-election campaign last year, Owens promised to use a police helicopter to make regular checks.
The county's Department of Inspections and Permits, which enforces the critical-area law, has 12 full-time inspectors who operate under a "zero-tolerance philosophy," Pam Jordan, a land-use spokeswoman for the county, said in an e-mail statement.
Citations are routinely issued for violations such as illegal bulkheads, piers and sheds. Recent fines ranged from $500 to more than $1,000.
"We are following a planned course of action in our role as stewards of the 533 miles of shoreline in Anne Arundel County," Jordan added. Noting a directive from Owens, Jordan declined a request from The Sun for a phone interview with her or Robert V. Winchester, critical-area program manager.
The next step for the county will be use of a police helicopter to conduct observation of the shoreline. Helicopter patrols are set to begin in July, when police receive a new one. The helicopter was expected last month, and Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan said during an interview then that it was "close to getting delivered."
Owens made frequent reference to the helicopter checks during her re-election campaign. The new helicopter will use Global Positioning System maps to help inspectors identify properties from the air. In the meantime, two older police helicopters are available for limited use, Jordan said.
Critics see no progress
Not everyone is convinced that the county's enforcement program has improved. While some have noticed an increase in the number of fines, shoreline restoration and mitigation still fall short, some say.
"What we are still waiting to see is what happens with some of our big violations from last year," said Drew Koslow, a board member of the South River Federation who testified before the commission last year about the county's enforcement failings.
Koslow said a South River homeowner cleared 300 feet of shoreline of trees and brush about a year ago and has yet to replant the shore. He said that in some cases, fines of $500 mean nothing to homeowners willing to pay $1 million or more for a water view.
"I have called the county to see how hard they are pushing to make sure the mitigation gets done," Koslow said.
John Flood, a member of the South River Federation who also testified last year, said Thursday that he, too, is waiting for the county to move ahead with mitigation. He said he would like to see the county law office take some offenders to court.
"If you don't take action, then all that has happened in enforcement is for nothing," Flood said.
Amanda Spake, president of South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development, or SACReD, said her group opposes a decision by the county planning office to allow construction of a senior housing community in Churchton within the 1,000-foot critical-area band.
"I still think they should be more strict," she said. "That's why we have the buffer. We are supposed to protect it."
Still, Serey praised Owens and her staff for "stepping in" and making quick changes to better protect the waterfront ecosystems. Serey said that in the past, county inspectors were "pulled in too many directions" but that today they are focused.
"This has been an evolutionary process for the county," he said, adding that county officials plan to use instructive brochures to educate the public about critical-area law.
Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.