Less-than-prime waterfront gaining favor with builders

Many of the sites predate current land-use laws - and that worries some

November 18, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

From the street, the undeveloped parcel of land in Epping Forest appears to have it all: views of Saltworks Creek, sheltering woods and a convenient location near Annapolis.

But a closer look at the proposed Arrow Cove development site reveals steep slopes, erodible soil and sensitive wildlife habitat - all on eight large lots cobbled together from about 140 sliver-thin parcels that predate current land-use rules.

"This is an illustration of how precious waterfront properties have become," said Regina Esslinger, chief of project evaluation for the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission, which monitors waterfront development and is reviewing the proposal. "We are looking at a finite resource, and the easy-to-develop sites ... are gone."

Environmentalists say that Arrow Cove - which still needs variances from Anne Arundel County to place houses and septic fields within 150 feet of the water - signals a worrisome trend in land use, one that state and local authorities may be unable to stop.

The intense desire for waterfront property, as well as holes in state and local laws that otherwise restrict development within 1,000 feet of the water, have led builders to pounce on even difficult-to-develop sites, say state officials.

At stake, they say, is the long-term health of the bay and all that goes along with it, including the survival of fish and wildlife as well as quality of life for thousands of waterfront dwellers.

"More and more developers are trying to shoehorn houses onto small, waterfront lots," said George Mauer, a senior planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "In Anne Arundel County, in particular, we are seeing more and more of that."

Anne Arundel County has 533 miles of shoreline - second only to Dorchester County - and many tiny waterside lots that were created before the state started to regulate waterfront development. As a result, the county often finds itself under attack from environmentalists.

"Counties with waterfront need to view the shore as a precious treasure," said Mauer. "The county should come up with some regulations that at least strike a balance to protect the environment. Some sites may be so compromised that it is just impossible to build."

Anne Arundel County officials say their hands are tied when it comes to development on older waterfront lots. The 1984 Critical Area Act allowed local jurisdictions to grandfather in old lots. Anne Arundel County code states that lots created before Dec. 1, 1985, do not have to meet the same criteria as new subdivisions.

The Epping Forest property - originally platted in 1926 as a rustic waterside retreat for city dwellers seeking tiny shacks for fishing or relaxation - falls into this category.

"You have to strike a balance between property rights, legal lots that have been in existence for years and new environmental controls that have come into effect in the last 20 years," said Betty Dixon, Anne Arundel County land use and environment coordinator. "It's hard. All of the easy properties have already been developed. It is these older ones that are really difficult."

Officials agree that Elm Street Development, of McLean, Va., has a legal right to build the Arrow Cove subdivision, where seven new homes - five of them with views of the creek - are expected to sell for about $1 million each. The property includes one existing home.

And even project opponents applaud the firm's efforts to be environmentally sensitive, including the clustering of houses to keep them away from steep slopes and the use of dry-well septic systems.

"Where all of the houses are going to be located it is pretty level," said Douglas Meeker, a project manager for Elm Street, whose firm dropped one lot in an effort to keep housing away from steep slopes. About 15 acres will be placed in a conservation easement.

The daughter of the owners of the 22-acre property said that her parents are counting on the sale of the land to fund their retirement. Carla Smith of Annapolis said that her family, which has owned the land for more than 40 years, explored other options, including conservation and family conveyance. In the end, they were forced to sell the land, she said.

"We all learned to swim and sail here," Smith said of herself and two siblings. "We are heartsick that we have to sell the land. If there was a way to avoid it, we would."

There is little the state can do to stop the project. "We can't deny construction on a site like that," said state Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Democrat from Southern Maryland and co-chairman of the Joint Committee on the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area.

The Critical Area Commission can only make a recommendation on the project. It will be up to the Anne Arundel County hearing officer to review the recommendation and come up with a final decision. A hearing is set to take place in Annapolis today.

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