Bay protections prevail

October 05, 2006

What a sweet victory! A state commission standing as the last sentry guarding a precious Eastern Shore river, the Blackwater wildlife refuge and the Chesapeake Bay itself from a 2,700-home golf resort wildly unsuited to the location turned thumbs-down yesterday.

Unanimously. Twenty-two zip.

A reading of the Critical Areas Commission staff report suggests that outright denial of an application to build at least a third of the project on state-protected land should have been a no-brainer. The developers' application to remove those protections flunked on every score in trying to justify why curbs are unnecessary. They didn't even get the critical areas boundary drawn correctly on their maps.

Yet, a year ago, few would have predicted this outcome. During its two decades of existence, the Critical Areas Commission has often seemed a toothless tool of local governments, with neither the political will nor the wherewithal to stand up to developers.

Yesterday's vote, spurred in part by enormous opposition from adjacent property owners and environmental groups, was a watershed that should usher in a new era in which the commission finally functions as envisioned by then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes when he first proposed it in 1984. In fact, the Critical Areas Commission could serve as the prototype for a more regional and statewide approach to land use that has broad impact.

But this decision may not be the end of the proposed Blackwater golf resort and convention center. The developer could scale back and redesign the project, and potentially win approval. Thus, talks under way between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and conservation groups to buy the land are still as crucial as ever to permanently protecting a precious resource.

At the same time, the economic need that drove Cambridge city and Dorchester County officials to support the developer's request must also be addressed - perhaps through development actually within the city. As more Marylanders are coming to realize, the health of the local economy and of the local environment are not mutually exclusive but in fact complement each other.

People fall in love with the Eastern Shore for what they can still see of the pristine beauty that greeted Capt. John Smith nearly 400 years ago. Now, there seems a chance some of that beauty will remain.

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