Environmentalists' hopes raised

Council's shake-up of Board of Appeals sparks new optimism

January 07, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

With the new Anne Arundel County Council's recent move to shake up an appeals board that has broad land-use authority, several environmentalists are hopeful that county leaders will take a harder line on protecting the county's extensive shoreline.

To the surprise of some environmental activists, the council declined last week to reappoint three members of the seven-member Board of Appeals, bowing to frustration over some of the panel's rulings that allowed for homebuilding in "critical areas" near the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

"Our elected officials have to listen to us, and I think that is reflected in this decision," said Bob Gallagher, the riverkeeper for the West and Rhode rivers.

No ruling by the quasi-judicial board drew more attention than one last month to allow homebuilder Daryl C. Wagner to keep the palatial home he's built on Little Dobbins Island in the Magothy River, despite not having obtained county permits. The board sided with Wagner in approving several retroactive variances.

The decision sparked strong comments from County Executive John R. Leopold, who vowed to get tough with violators of critical-area laws, and outrage among environmentalists, who pushed to throw out several of the six members seeking another four-year term.

"It's pretty clear that the public was outraged by [the board's] ruling on the Wagner house, and they made that clear to their representatives," said Kincey Potter, president of the South River Federation.

Drew Koslow, the riverkeeper for the South River, said that Leopold's words and the council's actions may indicate that the "pendulum is swinging back to a more balanced approach to development."

Growth and environmental protection of the eroding waterways stood out as top issues in the fall campaign.

Several council members spoke of going in a "new direction" or "different direction" in making appointments to the board, which handles a wide array of administrative matters. The council chairman, Republican Ronald C. Dillon Jr., said that the council gave more "time and scrutiny" to the process of selecting board members than during his prior term.

"I'm optimistic that the new Board of Appeals will be a little more environmentally sensitive than the previous board," said new County Councilman Josh Cohen, an Eastport Democrat.

The council voted to keep incumbents John Boring, an Arnold Republican; Arnold McKechnie, a Davidsonville Republican; and William Moulden, a Sherwood Forest Republican.

But members Ray Jicka, a Millersville Republican; Vance Remillard, a Millersville Democrat, and Anthony Lamartina, an Arnold Democrat and board chairman, were not retained. Board member Michael Topper, a Severn Democrat, did not seek another term.

The new members are Carroll Hicks, a Severna Park Democrat; William Knight, a Hanover Democrat; Andrew Pruski, a Gambrills Democrat; and James E. Rzepkowski, a Glen Burnie Republican who has served in the Ehrlich administration and in the House of Delegates.

The council interviewed 13 of the applicants Dec. 18 before voting Tuesday. The council has traditionally deferred to each member's choice from his or her council district.

Several council members said they made their votes based on the totality of a panelist's record, not any one case. But both legislators and activists agreed that the Wagner decision, coming just a month before the council was to make board appointments, sparked what Democratic Councilman G. James "Jamie" Benoit termed "the rallying cry of the public."

"If the Dobbins case hadn't been decided, we would have had to explain what the Board of Appeals does," said Gallagher, who had indications in the weeks before the final vote that the council had leaned toward picking most of the incumbents. "We didn't have to explain. All we had to say was: The County Council is about to reappoint the members of the board that voted to allow Wagner to keep his home on [Little] Dobbins Island. That's all it took to get their attention."

Council members received a flurry of phone calls, letters and e-mail. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation released a flier referring to a University of Maryland report that showed that the Board of Appeals approved 77 percent of all variances in 2005 for environmentally critical areas.

"That case obviously gave energy to the environmental groups ... and united them," Dillon said. "That was the kind of issue they could rally around."

Activists were not satisfied with all of the board selections. A few lamented the loss of Lamartina, a longtime board member praised by some as an insightful, fair chairman.

"He was always very thoughtful in interpreting the law in a way that was in harmony with the critical area law," Koslow, the riverkeeper, said. "His interests were fair to the landowner and the law."


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