State commission must decide whether law allows proposed project near Blackwater Wildlife Refuge

Shore resort pondered

October 04, 2006|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,sun reporter

As a state commission considers voting today on whether to allow a 2,700-home golf resort near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, it must weigh whether state law prohibits such intense development in an area surrounded by protected wetlands and farms.

But even as debate over the $1 billion Blackwater Resort continues, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - whose administration had called approval of the project a mostly local decision - is studying requests to preserve some of the land with state money, an aide said yesterday.

The hotel and golf complex, which also is to include a conference center and retail complex, is proposed on 1,080 acres of farmland, a third of which is designated by the state as a "resource conservation area."

Cambridge and Dorchester County have asked the state Critical Area Commission, which reviews projects in waterfront areas, to remove these protections - which would prohibit most construction - and allow an "intensely developed area." The commission is scheduled to meet today in Crownsville and could cast a crucial vote that would allow the project to proceed.

But state law says that changes to remove conservation protections should be allowed only when the land is "adjacent to an existing intensely developed area," according to a memo prepared by the staff of the commission, whose members are appointed by the governor.

That might not be the case with the Blackwater project, the report indicates.

"South of the site are several farms in the state agricultural preservation program," the report notes. "Several farms and forested lands are located to the west," while to the east lies the Little Blackwater River, and to the north are schools in a conservation area, the report says.

Environmentalists call the project sprawl that would destroy the Chesapeake region's most beautiful landscape.

"The law clearly says that we shouldn't intensely develop lands that are surrounded by important natural areas," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "The intent of this law is to protect our most critical lands - the lands that are most vulnerable and need protection."

During a recent meeting, the foundation urged Ehrlich to use state funds to buy and preserve the development site. The governor is considering the request, said administration spokesman Henry Fawell.

"The governor has had enough conversations and has done enough research to be convinced it's time to move forward in an effort to protect the Little Blackwater River, the wildlife refuge and the bay," said Fawell. "And we are very fortunate to be working with several preservation partners to pursue that goal."

Fawell refused to be more specific, saying he didn't want to jeopardize "discussions under way" about the land. He would not say whether the governor would stop the project or preserve the development site. This year, the governor's spokesman said the project was mostly a local decision.

Cambridge officials have endorsed the project, praising the millions in taxes they hope it will bring to a struggling Eastern Shore city that has lost population since the 1960s.

Supporters of developer Duane Zentgraf's plans have argued that it doesn't matter that the golf resort won't be next to housing developments. The farmland and wetlands targeted for construction are far outside downtown Cambridge, on rural land recently annexed by the city.

A school complex is immediately north of the project site, and this suggests it is appropriate for a new neighborhood, said Cambridge Mayor Cleveland Rippons. Just northeast of Maple Elementary School and South Dorchester High School are hundreds of homes already approved and under construction along busy Route 16, Rippons said.

William "Sandy" McAllister, attorney for the developer, said the "the vast majority" of large development projects in Cambridge in recent years have been in former conservation areas near bay tributaries. These include the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, completed in 2002 beside the Choptank River, he said.

"It's not only permissible, it happens all the time," McAllister said of state approvals to such projects in waterfront areas.

Ren Serey, executive director of the Critical Area Commission, said the Hyatt was different because part of the land had been a hospital site and wasn't a conservation area.

Serey would not comment on how the 29-member commission might vote today on the Blackwater Resort proposal. He said that a five-member subcommittee likely will vote on the project, but that a decision of the full commission might not come until next month.

A factor that the commission must consider, according to the memo, is that state law says that intensely developed areas should generally be at least 300 feet from waterways. The Blackwater project "includes some encroachment of buildings and parking lots," in this protected area, the report says.

The development has become an issue in the Nov. 7 gubernatorial election. Democratic challenger Martin O'Malley pledged in July and August to use state transfer-tax money to buy and preserve at least two-thirds of the Blackwater Resort land.

"Instead of raiding open-space dollars, Bob Ehrlich - even if it's another election year flip-flop - should use open-space funds to protect lands like the Blackwater that are vital to ensuring the health of the bay," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

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