Waterfront warning

October 08, 2003

IT MAY TAKE years to absorb all the lessons for storm preparation that Isabel recently left behind, but one message is already clear: Those who don't treat the shoreline with respect will likely regret it.

Houses built too close to the water were smashed to bits; waterfront property cleared of trees and wetlands was washed away. Litter and other debris dumped along bay and river banks - or directly into the water - were spit back into flooded basements and living rooms.

The often tentative, hesitant approach toward land-use restrictions to protect the Chesapeake Bay employed by politicians, bureaucrats and courts was overruled by surging seas. Nature enforces its own code swiftly and without appeal.

What's more, that natural method of enforcement is likely to occur more frequently as the region enters a renewed period of tropical storm activity with water levels 3 feet higher than when Annapolis and Fells Point were built in the 1700s - and expected to rise another foot over the next 25 years.

We all have too much at risk, however, to cast our fate to the wind. It would be far safer, cheaper and healthier for the bay if we were able to anticipate occasional shoreline surges and be ready to accommodate them.

Building restrictions should probably be tightened. For example, waterfront homeowners whose properties were substantially but not completely destroyed are currently permitted to rebuild on the same spot in the same manner. That makes little sense.

Most urgent, though, is protection of the 1,000-foot critical-areas buffer along the shoreline of the bay and its tributaries. Intended to protect water quality, the 19-year-old restrictions on waterfront use also helped communities where they were applied to weather Isabel far better than more heavily developed shorelines.

Yet the critical-areas restrictions are under grave threat. In a ruling last summer, the Maryland Court of Appeals virtually invited property owners to ignore the restrictions by requiring county zoning officials to prove the specific harm caused in each case - an impossibly high enforcement burden. The court has been asked by the state Critical Areas Commission to reconsider that ruling and should surely see its folly.

Even before that ruling, many waterfront property owners routinely violated restrictions on building, grading and bulkheading - sometimes through ignorance and sometimes because the penalty for doing so is a relatively low $500 fine. The Severn River, for example, is replete with multimillion-dollar mansions surrounded by sloping lawns that run down to the water's edge. In at least some of these cases, state legislators suspect trees and undergrowth were illegally cleared to improve the view.

"They destroy the river just to look at it," said Del. Barbara Frush, a Prince George's County Democrat. Delegate Frush and state Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Democrat from St. Mary's County, say they may seek stricter penalties for such violators, and will work, if need be, to repair damage to the critical-areas law done by the court.

That may prove difficult - but still easier to fix than those manicured lawns Isabel broke off in huge chunks and washed out to sea.

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