Raising stakes on ecological offenses

Criminal charges filed in recent wetlands case

April 11, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The Maryland attorney general's recent prosecution of a developer charged with filling in tidal wetlands in south Anne Arundel County is sending a message to activists about renewed enforcement of Maryland's environmental laws.

The charges, filed last month, mark the first time in at least a decade that the county has pursued criminal prosecution for a grading permit violation. They come on the heels of a General Assembly effort to strengthen the Critical Area Act that has been regulating development along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for 20 years.

"These are violations that affect the health of a community," Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said of other recent cases, though he wouldn't comment on the pending Arundel prosecution. "We, in fact, are very aggressive and very active. There's got to be someone out there fighting the grime," he said, referring to sediment and pollution.

Despite state budget cuts, Curran's environmental crimes division has maintained the same staffing since its creation more than 20 years ago. Three assistant attorneys general, one civil investigator and two state troopers help with cases ranging from illegal tire dumping to wetlands violations. A Baltimore police officer is also on loan to tackle illegal trash dumping and lead-paint problems in the city.

Curran said his staff investigates about 75 cases annually and prosecutes about 25 of them. In the past few years, he said, he has noticed that judges have been handing out stricter punishments in cases of water pollution.

Last week, a Baltimore judge sentenced a landlord to five consecutive weekends in jail for lead violations - the first property owner jailed since the city began cracking down on violators four years ago. And two years ago, a Baltimore circuit judge fined a Cherry Hill concrete operator $150,000 after the company pleaded guilty to discharging concrete slurry into the Patapsco River - the largest fine Curran can remember.

Though several of Curran's cases come from county state's attorneys, local jurisdictions often prefer to handle alleged violations.

Last year, Anne Arundel County received 1,388 calls about possible grading violations and determined that 854 were infractions. From those, the county collected $15,800 in fines.

But C. Richard Benson's case was different, said county land-use spokeswoman Pam Jordan. Last month, the Baltimore County builder was charged with clearing nearly 8,000 square feet of tidal wetlands to build homes on the bay in Anne Arundel.

Benson faces one count of performing construction without a sediment-control permit and two counts of conducting unauthorized activities on tidal wetlands. If found guilty of all three misdemeanors, he could face a year in prison or $30,000 in fines.

"Some cases stand out above others, and this one in particular warranted stronger action," Jordan said. "We're taking advantage of the criminal proceedings when the case is egregious."

Benson's trial is scheduled for June. He could not be reached for comment.

Drew Koslow, river keeper for the South River Federation, has criticized the county for not taking violations seriously in the past. But Koslow said that in the past 18 months, the county has increased enforcement and improved its communication with advocacy groups.

When he heard about the recent criminal charges, he wasn't surprised.

"Tidal wetlands have been protected in Maryland for a long time. Even developers know that you can't mess with them," he said.

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