Kent Island project visited

Public works board examines site before wetlands permit vote

May 19, 2007|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN REPORTER

CHESTER --Worried about environmental damage from a proposed 1,350-unit community here on heavily developed Kent Island, the state's Board of Public Works crossed the Bay Bridge yesterday for a firsthand look.

The three-member board, which delayed a May 9 vote on a routine wetlands permit to provide time to study the plan, was greeted yesterday by sign-waving opponents and supporters - residents who have clashed over the planned Four Seasons project for nearly a decade.

The panel, made up of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, spent about two hours touring the sprawling 350-acre farm with spectacular waterfront views, located just a mile from busy U.S. 50. They were trailed by a caravan packed with reporters, photographers, and state and local officials, along with local supporters of the project. Many opponents walked onto the property.

"This is helpful on such an important decision that we get here to see it in context," O'Malley said. "This the largest redevelopment with the highest density proposed in a critical area."

Critics say the development could damage two creeks and the Chester River, but the first phase has already been approved by the state Critical Area Commission and the entire site is designated as a growth area for Queen Anne's County.

Developers hope to turn the property into an over-55 seniors community, the largest project ever proposed for Kent Island.

The three board members said they expect to vote on the wetlands permit Wednesday in what could be the final step in an eight-year approval process for the developer, the New Jersey-based K. Hovnanian Cos. - or a sticking point that could further delay the Four Seasons development.

Mark D. Steman, a Hovnanian division vice president, refused to speculate on how the company would proceed if the public works panel rejects the wetlands permit next week.

"We've done everything that was required, jumped through all the hoops in the approval process," Steman said. "There's no legal basis to hold us up. The state issues these permits all the time."

O'Malley said the public works board is charged with making its own decision, whether or not the company has met other approval criteria.

"The fact that other hurdles have been crossed doesn't mean we shouldn't fulfill our responsibility and make a decision as a board. There may be a lot of lessons we can learn in this case. It's a real world situation," the governor said.

Franchot continued to spar with the company's lawyers over a 2003 legal settlement signed by a previous Board of County Commissioners that blocks the current five-member board from commenting on the Four Seasons project.

The previous board, which struck the agreement, had a 4-1 Republican majority. But last November's election brought four Democrats to office, leaving just one Republican.

At the May 9 public works meeting, Franchot, a Democrat, complained that local officials were unwilling to speak for fear of legal action by Hovnanian.

In a letter yesterday to the company's attorney, John H. Zink III, Franchot urged that "you release the Queen Anne's County Commissioners from these verbal shackles" to allow them to testify at Wednesday's board meeting.

"Clearly, this is a form of gag order," Franchot said. "If it's not a gag order, it's as close to one as I've ever seen. That's not acceptable."

In the meantime, the state attorney general's office is researching a series of questions about the settlement, as well as the board's authority.

Most of the development, a community that is aimed at baby boomers, would be built in the state's critical area, where development is restricted within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

The wetlands permit sought from the Board of Public Works by Hovnanian is required before the company can build a small bridge and create a stormwater management system, along with water and sewer service and a community pier.

"Nobody's saying the company pulled a fast one; everything has gone through the process," said Joseph Shapiro, a spokesman for Franchot. "It reflects a new focus on the environment."

The developer says state-of-the-art storm management will actually improve water quality when compared with runoff from farm fields, but opponents don't believe it.

"This is a project that's going to add to our congestion, which is already out of control," said Rich Altman, executive director of the Queen Anne's Conservation Association. "It would add 3,000 or more people. This is a fragile ecosystem we need to protect."

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