Kent Island project is denied key permit

State board decision shows new sway of environmentalists

May 24, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

Amid warnings that Maryland's development laws and regulations are not strong enough to protect the Chesapeake Bay, the state Board of Public Works denied yesterday a key wetlands permit for a proposed 1,350-home waterfront community on Kent Island.

In the most substantial evidence yet of the growing influence of environmentalists in Annapolis, the board voted 2-1 to deny the developer permission to disturb a small patch of wetlands for the proposed 562-acre Four Seasons project.

"This is really important," said Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, "and I think it sends an incredible signal to the Marylanders out there who want to clean up the bay."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, one of the three board members, said the New Jersey-based development firm, K. Hovnanian, had failed to prove that granting the wetland permit would not harm the bay, even though the developer had pledged to replace the lost marshy area.

O'Malley said the project was the largest single bayfront development proposed since the state began regulating waterfront construction in 1984, and he questioned the "common sense" of "cramming this many units" so close to the troubled estuary and on a low-lying island vulnerable to flooding in a hurricane.

Joining the governor in opposing the permit was Comptroller Peter Franchot, who also lambasted what he called a "gag order" imposed by the developer on local officials. Queen Anne's County's commissioners declined to attend yesterday's hearing, pointing to a 2003 settlement of a lawsuit between the developer and a previous board of county commissioners, which holds the county liable if officials do anything to undermine the project.

Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp cast the sole vote in favor of the permit for the development. Kopp said that while she favored tightening environmental and growth management laws, she believed the developer had met all laws and rules now on the books.

The unusual vote by a state board to block a large development proposal illustrates how environmentally oriented the state government has become since O'Malley and Franchot, two Democrats, took office and joined the board in January.

Schwartz said the vote validates the backing environmentalists had given Franchot and O'Malley against Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in last fall's elections. She said she's seen a "sea change" in Annapolis "from the governor on down, to want to work with environmentalists." O'Malley backed "clean cars" legislation that passed this year, as well as a "green fund" that did not.

The tenor of the four-hour hearing suggested that the environmental push might increase in the coming year, as state officials and activists alike voiced concern about the adequacy of growth-management and environmental laws, particularly the 1984 law limiting development within 1,000 feet of the bay and its tributaries. More than three-fourths of the Four Seasons tract lies in state-regulated "critical area."

"We have to do something different regarding land use," said state Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson. "It's a major factor impacting the bay."

K. Hovnanian was seeking a state wetland permit to build a bridge over a tributary of the Chester River and a 500-foot pier for docking residents' boats at the "active adult" community. Lawyers for the firm could not be reached for comment after the vote, but one, Joseph A. Stevens, said earlier yesterday that denial of the permit would have "substantial impacts" on the project because plans called for the bridge to provide the only road access to part of the site.

The developer previously had signed a development agreement with Queen Anne's officials pledging to provide up to $40 million worth of needed public improvements, including a wastewater treatment plant and support for fire and ambulance service.

But the project became a lightning rod for public discontent over the pace and scale of growth on the Eastern Shore. Queen Anne's voters ousted incumbent commissioners who supported the development, prompting officials at one point to back out of their agreement with the developer - only to be sued.

Local business leaders and a few residents attended yesterday's hearing to show their support for the development. "I love the Eastern Shore," said Jim Love, who described himself as a lifelong resident of the peninsula.

The rural character of the region has been changing since the Bay Bridge was finished in the early 1950s, he said, a fact he lamented. "But I know change is constant, [and] we have to adapt and work with it."

Environmental and civic groups urged the board to deny the permit, noting that the development poses threats to the bay from polluted storm water washing off the roofs and pavement, and from the sewage that the added residents would generate.

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