Senate votes down Blackwater bill

Legislation aimed to place limits on development of resort near Shore refuge

March 25, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA AND TOM PELTON | JENNIFER SKALKA AND TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTERS

The Maryland Senate killed a bill yesterday that sought to limit development near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore, handing a victory to advocates of growth and local control.

Sen. James Brochin, the Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the legislation, attributed the defeat to an influx of lobbyists working for the developer who wants to build a $1 billion resort community near the refuge.

But even Democratic leaders -- Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore -- voted against the bill, which would have barred construction on about a third of the 1,080-acre site in an environmentally sensitive area along Little Blackwater River.

Only a handful of senators took part in debate before the measure was defeated by a 27-20 vote.

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, summed up the opposition by saying the fate of the development should be up to local officials. He also said the developer has complied with all building requirements.

"To put this in after someone has played by the rules and change the rules in the middle of the game is, I think, extremely egregious," Stoltzfus said.

Developer Duane Zentgraf wants to build 3,200 homes, a conference center, a retail complex, a golf course and tennis courts on farmland and wetlands south of Cambridge and north of the region's largest wildlife refuge.

The plans must still withstand a legal challenge by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and be approved in their final form by the Cambridge City Council and the Maryland Critical Areas Commission, which has jurisdiction over areas within 1,000 feet of Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

Environmentalists have complained that building on farmland close to the Little Blackwater River will lead to polluted runoff flushing into the refuge. Local farmers have said introducing about 10,000 new residents in suburban-style cul-de-sacs into a rural area will ruin hunting and agriculture.

But supporters of the project have argued that Cambridge and surrounding Dorchester County desperately need the more than $25 million in impact fees that would come with the project, which would almost double the city's population. Cambridge has lost population and jobs since the 1960s.

Cambridge Mayor Cleveland L. Rippons, whose city annexed land to allow the project, said he was happy with the legislature's decision. He said lawmakers concluded that decisions about development should be left to local governments.

"Most people agreed that the best thing is self-determination at the local level," Rippons said. "The local governments understand more about the merits of the project than the state."

During debate yesterday, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the property should be protected for future generations. "We only have one Blackwater Wildlife Refuge in the country," he said. "It's a national treasure."

Afterward, Brochin said, "I didn't just lose my bill today, the Chesapeake Bay lost today."

Lexine Lowe, a Dorchester County social worker and member of an activist group called Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth, said she was disappointed with the legislature's decision.

"The bill would have had so little impact on the development," Lowe said. "It only protected the 1,000 feet around the Little Blackwater River and would have had so much environmental benefit."

Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the organization's legal challenge to the project will go on. "We continue to believe that this is the wrong project in the wrong place."

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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