State dives into dispute

Shore permit delayed as `gag order' muddies water

May 10, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Concern about the environmental impact of a proposed 1,300-home development along Kent Island's waterfront - and local officials' inability to talk about it - prompted the Board of Public Works yesterday to get in the middle of a long-simmering dispute over building in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The three-member state board heard hours of testimony from the developer and from Queen Anne's County residents who worry about the effect of the project on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, eventually deciding to delay approval of a routine wetlands license to gather more information.

But they won't be able to get any feedback from the Queen Anne's County commissioners. As a result of a settlement county leaders agreed to before most of the current commissioners took office, the elected officials there have been advised that they can't publicly criticize the project. None of them came to Annapolis yesterday to testify before the board, which is made up of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

"My interpretation is it's essentially a gag order against discussing anything potentially negative with it," said County Commission President Eric S. Wargotz, a Republican who was first elected last year. "So if there are aspects of the project we like, I guess we're able to talk about it. If there are aspects of the project we don't like, we're not able to discuss it with other officials in government."

O'Malley said he was troubled enough by the project that he needed to delay a vote until the board's May 23 meeting so he could get more information. Kopp said she would request advice from the attorney general about what authority the board has in the matter. Franchot was the most outspoken, saying he questions the project because of the environmental implications and the unusual settlement agreement between the developer and the county that has led to its approval.

"I think there's been a little too much legal intimidation of the local officials," he said.

Attorneys for the developer denied that any such intimidation had taken place and said they had not imposed any sort of gag order.

Most of the development, which is billed as an "active adult community" aimed at baby boomers, would be built within so-called critical areas where development is generally restricted. But it also falls within the Queen Anne's County Smart Growth and Priority Funding areas.

The developer, K. Hovanian Cos., contends that the project will reduce the amount of pollution flowing into the bay through superior storm-water management. The site is located across the Bay Bridge from Annapolis.

"There are some people in Queen Anne's County who do not like the idea of any development on this property, and they are certainly entitled to their opinions," said Nancy L. Slepicka, an attorney for the developers. "But the rule of law ... has determined this is an appropriate place for development."

Phase I passed

The first phase of the project met the criteria imposed by the Critical Areas Commission and has received approvals from that group and local officials. A routine wetlands license from the state Board of Public Works is one of the last steps before construction can begin.

But Board of Public Works members extensively questioned the developers and local opponents about the project's environmental impact and the legal twists in the seven-year-long dispute over the development.

Doldon Moore, the board's wetlands administrator, told members that the project has met the state's guidelines for the wetlands license. That includes a requirement for storm-water management to reduce by at least 10 percent the amount of nutrient pollution that would flow into the bay if the land were kept in its current agricultural use.

But several Queen Anne's residents who testified questioned that conclusion, saying a project that would add 4 million square feet of impervious surfaces on land that abuts three Chesapeake Bay tributaries cannot be good for the environment.

"This is not smart growth," said Wynn Krosac, president of the Kent Island Defense League, a civic group. "There are no existing sewer lines, no existing water lines, no roads, no electric lines, and 80 percent of the project is in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas."

Residents sued to stop the project and won a preliminary victory in Circuit Court only to see it struck down by the state Court of Special Appeals. They are now seeking review by the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

Attorneys for the developer said it's unclear how big a setback a refusal by the Board of Public Works would be, in part because such an action would be extremely rare. The board typically votes on wetlands licenses without discussion.

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