`Critical areas' bill delayed

Officials put off revised environmental law until after election

July 23, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

Seeking to avoid a complicated fight in an election year, county officials have decided to set aside efforts to reform the "critical areas" environmental protection law until voters select a successor for outgoing County Executive Janet S. Owens.

County leaders reached their decision after a series of recent public meetings on proposed revisions to critical area laws, which regulate development within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

While the county said it has significantly revised the bill based on forum input, residents said they need more time to study the changes. County officials said the Office of Law and Land Use will seek more feedback from the public and environmental organizations into the fall, with the goal of having a bill ready when the next county executive and County Council take office, after the general election in November.

"We would like to give the public more time," said County Attorney Linda Schuett, who sits on a committee of county officials that has worked for nearly a year to revise the laws.

Among the aims of the legislation, according to county officials: mandating a zero-tolerance policy on clearing within the critical area without permission, and purging loopholes in the current laws to clarify requirements for developing within that zone.

State law requires that every six years the county amend its critical area laws, which regulate land use within 1,000 feet of a shoreline. The debate over the revisions has gained heightened importance with recent high-profile cases regarding island development on the Magothy River.

Environmentalists said the critical area laws are crucial to protecting the county's more than 530 miles of shoreline.

"These critical area rules are very important, and they have to be taken seriously," said Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association.

But so far, some activists contend the county's revised rules would encourage development, in turn harming water quality and habitat.

"Almost everything it does makes the process of getting permission to clear vegetation and build in the critical area easier," said Bob Gallagher, riverkeeper for the West and Rhode rivers.

Gallagher said some of the proposed changes would weaken restrictions on building of impervious surfaces and lessen scrutiny of proposals that disturb vegetation within 100 feet of the shore.

The bill would double the fines for illegal clearing within that area. County officials also note provisions that would encourage the placement of impervious surfaces away from critical area buffer -- property within 100 feet of a shoreline -- and require a certain number of plantings in relation to all impervious surface on a property.

For developers seeking to obtain variances to build within the critical area, the bill would require officials within the county appeals process who strike down their requests to tell them what would be an acceptable size and scope of project. Under the current process, an applicant not awarded a variance would have little guidance as to how to modify a project to make it acceptable.

"Certainly, there's logic to that," Gallagher said.

County officials hope to produce an amended draft by late fall, Schuett said. A draft bill is available on the county's Web site, www.aacounty.org, until Aug. 15.

The County Council's four-year legislative season comes to an end in October, meaning the deadline to submit the legislation is Sept. 18. County officials worried about pushing through such high-profile legislation with a hard deadline looming. The bill is likely to generate amendments and passionate public debate. Activists said the county made a wise decision to delay final action, with the political season heating up.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

Written comments on the draft legislation may be sent to criticalarea@aacounty.org or to the Anne Arundel County Office of Law, 2660 Riva Road, Annapolis 21401.

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