The new battle of St. Michaels

October 17, 2006

Look no further than the proposed development of 89 acres on the outskirts of tiny St. Michaels for an example of the reckless regard we muster in the name of appreciating our natural resources.

The Midland Cos. wants to build a stylish neighborhood of 279 homes, a performing arts center and a pool on farmland adjacent to the town, which boasts of fooling the British in the War of 1812 by hanging lanterns in trees outside the village so a nighttime naval bombardment would miss its mark. It's time to relight the lanterns.

St. Michaels is a lovely town, and it's easy to see why people who can afford the real estate buy homes there. But the pressures on St. Michaels are emblematic of the development dilemma facing the Eastern Shore in general. Asking St. Michaels and its immediate area, with a population of fewer than 2,000 full-time residents, to accommodate a nearly 40 percent increase in people is asking too much of the land, water and infrastructure. Fortunately, the project requires a wetlands permit from the state, and it should not go forward.

Except by boat, there's only one way in and one way out of St. Michaels. The narrow two-lane Route 33 is already thick with traffic on most weekends. Emergency vehicles trying to pass through often are forced to a crawl. Imagine the consequences of more traffic from several hundred new homes.

As described in an article by Sun reporter Tom Pelton, Midland wants to fill 4 acres of the Miles River with sand and stone, the foundation for an artificial wetlands that ostensibly would foster habitat for indigenous plants and wildlife. Reclaiming wetlands around the bay is a noble and practical objective; Maryland has lost 60,000 acres of this natural filter system since the 1940s.

But Midland's pledge to build 4 acres of wetlands seems more of an excuse to build homes closer to the river. It is doubtful that this man-made buffer, susceptible to high winds and flooding, would come close to mitigating increased stormwater runoff.

The state's Critical Area Commission, which made the right decision to protect wetlands from development near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, foolishly approved Midland's faux wetlands plan and reduced its setback requirements. But the state Department of the Environment must review the wetlands permit, and this gives it the opportunity to make a better decision. A paltry 4 acres of new wetlands is not worth the troubles that this project would bring.

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