Build first, ask later

December 08, 2006

One of Anne Arundel County's most poorly kept secrets is that the building permits process doesn't get much respect.

Some say it's too strict. Some say it's too cumbersome. Some just don't want to bother getting permission before constructing an addition to a home, putting up a barn, paving a driveway, or filling in wetlands. So, they just go ahead and do what they want. If they get caught, they might have to pay a fine. But what's done is done.

No one is believed to have flouted the law as audaciously, though, as Daryl Wagner, a developer who bought a small, thickly forested island in the Magothy River, cleared it of vegetation and a modest home, and erected a 2,269-square foot mini-mansion complete with pool and lighthouse - all without any effort to comply with county zoning and environmental regulations.

What's worse, he's getting away with it. The county Board of Appeals essentially upheld this week an earlier decision by a county administrative hearing officer to grant Mr. Wagner the necessary approvals after the fact.

This is a very dangerous precedent that must be reversed - and not just to avoid rewarding someone for taking shortcuts while other citizens play by the rules.

By clearing Little Dobbins Island's foliage and hardening its shoreline, Mr. Wagner has caused precisely the sort of environmental damage and degradation the building regulations were designed to prevent. He should be ordered to remove all the offending structures and restore the foliage buffer zone.

The next stop for this case may be the state's Critical Areas Commission, which is charged with protecting the buffer zone around the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The commission's executive director, Ren Serey, has already indicated his disappointment with the Board of Appeals, so Mr. Wagner may not find so much sympathy at the state agency. He certainly shouldn't.

From time to time in the long battle of Little Dobbins Island the observation has been made that requiring Mr. Wagner to tear down his house seems unduly harsh. That's why this tactic works so well. Once a structure is in place, it acquires a life of its own.

But what's at issue in this case is no backyard shed or de facto pier: This is a clear and direct challenge to Maryland's ability to protect its shoreline, its environment, even its economy from destructive scofflaws.

If Mr. Wagner is allowed so egregious a breach, all those cheaters who come after him will expect - and doubtless get - similar treatment.

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