Legislators aim to undo ruling on waterfront areas

Bill, penalties proposed to protect bay's shoreline

December 18, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland lawmakers moved forward yesterday with an effort to undo a court decision that undercut protection of sensitive waterfront areas. They also proposed language that would toughen penalties for violations of state and local laws.

The proposed legislation - reviewed by the Joint Committee on Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Areas - would reverse a ruling by Maryland's highest court in favor of a wealthy landowner who built a hunting lodge and cabins on a remote Nanticoke River Island.

The ruling appears to impose a greater burden on local officials who try to enforce zoning laws, making it easier for landowners to build in protected areas.

Lawmakers and environmental advocates said they fear the 4-3 decision by the Court of Appeals could undo 20 years of efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay shoreline and tributaries from overdevelopment.

They also worry that the decision - which they believe runs counter to the General Assembly's intent when it enacted critical-areas legislation - could be used more broadly to undermine land-use and zoning decisions by local governments.

"We have been through some difficult times with critical areas over the last six months," said Del. Barbara Frush, a Prince George's County Democrat and co-chairwoman of the joint committee. "Hopefully, we can get over to the Court of Appeals legislation that shows our intent."

The state's critical areas law was designed to regulate development on land within 1,000 feet of shoreline. This week, an Abell Foundation report on the 20-year-old law concluded that it provided an important tool in helping the bay, but that more action is needed to protect open space in Maryland.

The Abell report also concluded that state and local officials need expanded enforcement powers to check illegal construction and development.

The proposal unveiled yesterday would address that concern by increasing to $10,000 the maximum fine for violations of the critical-areas law. Under current law, the maximum fine is often $500.

"This is a new enforcement tool for local jurisdictions," said Martin G. Madden, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission, which oversees the law.

Madden said his commission supports the concept of reversing the Court of Appeals decision and increasing fines but has not taken a position on specific legislation.

Most members of the joint committee also indicated support for the proposal, but they delayed a vote until their next meeting, likely next month.

"We'll definitely put in legislation to do this," said Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat and joint committee co-chairman.

"It will either come from the joint committee as a whole, or I'll put in a bill in the Senate and Delegate Frush will put in the bill for the House," Dyson said.

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