A protection tool in progress

June 26, 2006

Twenty-two years after the enactment of landmark legislation to protect the sensitive shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay, a study of how well it's working confirmed much of what critics had long suspected.

Most county officials charged with enforcing Critical Area Act protections aren't particularly aggressive about it, concluded the University of Maryland Law Clinic in a report issued last month. They rarely fine lawbreakers, don't have enough inspectors to find violations and tend to accommodate landowners and developers rather than take a harsh line in defense of the bay.

Thus, when Anne Arundel County officials recently unveiled an update of critical-area regulations intended to streamline and simplify the permit process for landowners still further, environmentalists cried foul.

But Anne Arundel, which has been perhaps the most vigorous county in the state at protecting its shorelines, is bowing to lessons learned over two decades of experience that were also reflected in the law clinic study.

If regulations are too strict, too confusing, too costly or too time-consuming for property owners or developers to meet, often they won't bother. They'll take a chance that they won't get caught, and that the penalty won't be too onerous if they do.

So the new regulations would close some loopholes and make requirements clearer, while also proclaiming a zero-tolerance policy on clearing trees and vegetation in critical shoreline areas without permission.

But the draft is also a work in progress that began last week with public hearings. It's clear that zero tolerance has to be modified to allow for mowing grass, and that more creative ways than fines must be found to discourage property owners from taking their chances on clearing without a permit.

As the County Council takes up the regulations perhaps later this summer, no doubt more ideas will emerge to maximize their effectiveness. A big help would be providing county inspectors with access to a boat, because much of the sensitive bay buffer zone can be viewed only from the water.

Rigorous enforcement relies mostly, though, on all county residents understanding how critical the shoreline is to the bay, and doing their part to protect it. No county could afford enough inspectors and enough lawyers to match the services easily provided by some vigilant volunteers and nosy neighbors.

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