When legislators charged with protecting the Chesapeake Bay toured the Severn River near Annapolis yesterday, they winced when they spied a sloping residential property that had recently been clear-cut in violation of state and local laws.
Using binoculars to examine stubby tree trunks and muddy ruts created by storm-water runoff, members of the Joint Committee on the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area vowed to strengthen state law that regulates building activity, including tree cutting and plant removal, within 1,000 feet of the shore.
"When you have million-dollar homeowners doing things like this, it's hard to get the rest of us to do it," said state Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a St. Mary's County Democrat who heads the critical area committee along with Del. Barbara Frush, a Democrat from Laurel. "There's got to be a better way to protect the bay."
Dyson and Frush - who toured the river on a Department of Natural Resources boat with representatives of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Critical Area Commission and Anne Arundel County - said that they could sponsor legislation during the 2004 General Assembly to sharply increase fines for violators like the one who cut down trees to maximize his view of the Severn River.
They said that local jurisdictions need more help in monitoring residential and commercial development along Maryland creeks, streams and rivers.
In Anne Arundel County, 16 building inspectors work to guard the shore and yet violations still occur - at least 39 since May.
In some cases, homeowners don't realize that they are breaking the law, but some knowingly violate it because the fines won't amount to much more than $2,000.
"Where I come from, that's chump change," Dyson said.
Committee members said that they fear a recent Court of Appeals case out of Wicomico County, in which a wealthy landowner won the right to keep waterfront structures even though they were built on sensitive wetlands without proper permits, could further erode 20-year-old state laws aimed at guarding against overdevelopment along the Chesapeake Bay.
"We're coming up against problems in the courts and people who just don't love the Chesapeake Bay as much as we do," said Frush, referring to the Wicomico case and three others, including two from Anne Arundel County, in which the Court of Appeals sided with property owners who wanted to build structures near the water.
Frush said that lawmakers are hoping to undo some of the damage done by the high court.
With that goal in mind, yesterday's tour, an annual event, was more of a brainstorming session than a leisurely outing.
Members of the group talked about including critical-area information in packets for new homeowners and providing it to real estate agents who deal with waterfront properties.
Some of them discussed ways to fine builders who knowingly violate critical-area laws and then roll the fine into the final cost of the home.
There was also talk of forcing homeowners to make deposits toward shoreline mitigation efforts, or placing liens on properties.
"We all have the same goal," said Martin G. Madden, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission. "But we need to consolidate our efforts."
In Anne Arundel County, where the administration of County Executive Janet S. Owens has been criticized recently for failing to fine violators, county officials are creating a stewardship program to educate local homeowners and builders about critical-area rules.
County Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, a Democrat from Annapolis and member of the Critical Area Commission who was on the river tour, said that she might introduce legislation to incorporate into county code a new state law, including fines up to $10,000 or jail time for homeowners who fail to keep sediment from running off their property.
Said Samorajczyk: "What we are doing is looking at how we can improve the enforcement."