May 13, 2007

Lest there be any question about why it's so difficult to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, consider the sordid saga of the Four Seasons development slated for the fragile shores of Kent Island.

Controversial from the start, the project found favor with pro-growth Queen Anne's County commissioners who were ousted in 2002 by outraged voters but signed the deal just before leaving office. Their replacements tried to void the approval but were sued by the developer, lost in court and agreed to drop their opposition to avoid a threatened $3 million in legal penalties.

Now, as a third batch of commissioners watches the developer move through the final steps required before the 1,300-home retirement resort arises from farmland, the local officials feel compelled to hold their tongues. Most, if not all, have privately indicated they oppose the project, but they have been threatened with further legal action by the developer if they say so publicly.

This is outrageous, undemocratic and probably unconstitutional. Public officials, none of whom signed the 2003 settlement, can't be silenced in their duty to represent the interests of their constituents. Not in this country.

The state Board of Public Works was so alarmed last week at what Comptroller Peter Franchot called "too much legal intimidation of the local officials" that it delayed at least until next month a decision on whether to grant a wetlands permit for the project.

The interlude should give state leaders a chance to hear from the commissioners -- Mr. Franchot has already appealed to developers to lift their gag order -- as well as to consider the larger issues at stake.

A project that state Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson dubbed utterly wrong for this property -- not least because it's almost certain to flood during heavy storms -- has gotten as far as it has by a combination of sweet talk and bullying. Gov. Martin O'Malley and the rest of the Board of Public Works should send Four Seasons back to the county for a fresh review.

Two major threats to the bay are development and agricultural runoff. Four Seasons' application for a wetlands permit was based on the claim that the development will send 10 percent less nitrogen into the bay than farm fertilizer. But it ignores the huge new burden of water and sewer services, the added highway congestion and air pollution, and the vast uptick in impervious surfaces that new growth guidelines discourage.

An attorney for the developers argued that granting wetlands permits is a routine matter that should go through because they almost always do. That's part of why the bay is dying. There will be no saving it if bullies are allowed to prevail.

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