May 24, 2007

At last, the state finally seems to be getting serious about cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

The Board of Public Works yesterday wisely rejected a wetlands permit that despite obvious signs of the bay's wretched condition would have allowed the largest and densest development ever within the purportedly protected critical areas buffer zone along the bay shoreline.

In voting against the proposed 1,350-home community on Kent Island, Gov. Martin O'Malley and state Comptroller Peter Franchot set an important precedent by putting the broader interests of the state above those of a developer who followed the letter of the law. Their 11th-hour intervention in a project nine years on the drawing boards was a powerful signal to developers and local officials that the state can no longer be counted on to rubber-stamp developments that meet technical criteria but defy common sense.

The fact that they had to effectively overrule two state Cabinet officers who felt compelled to support the project exposed the grave weaknesses of Maryland's ineffective, outmoded and often ignored environmental regulations. The board's action must be followed up with legislation next year to tighten bay protections in the development process and to empower the state Department of Planning to play a much stronger role, particularly on a regional basis.

State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, who voted to grant the wetlands permit for the Four Seasons project because she believed the developer met the narrow requirements of the statute, said she was "not happy in my heart" but argued that the board was obliged to enforce the laws as they exist.

The dramatic vote, which followed two lengthy public hearings and a visit by the top state officials to the rural, waterfront development site, doesn't necessary doom the Four Seasons project, which has been through several court battles and won a slew of previous approvals. A redesign of the project may not require a wetlands permit.

But coming in the wake of the Critical Areas Commission's decision last year to turn down a massive development project that threatened the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, yesterday's action suggests that state officials are finally getting the message that bay degradation can never be reversed until shoreline uses are held to much higher standards.

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