The state Board of Public Works' unusual decision last week to deny a crucial permit to a large, long-planned waterfront community on Kent Island has developers crying foul and warning that more sprawl could result.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, say the state board's last-minute derailment of the Four Seasons project in Queen Anne's County highlights the need for more stringent controls on development to protect the Chesapeake Bay.
It remained unclear last week what would become of the eight-year-old plan to build 1,350 homes for "active adults" on former farmland near the eastern end of the Bay Bridge. The vast majority of the 562-acre tract lies within a state-regulated "critical area" bordering the bay and its tributaries.
Lawyers and a spokesman for K. Hovnanian, the New Jersey-based developer proposing the Four Seasons, have not returned calls since the 2-1 vote by the state board Wednesday denying the project a permit to disturb a small patch of tidal wetlands and water. The two board members denying the permit were Gov. Martin O'Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot, with Treasurer Nancy Kopp dissenting.
The president of the Queen Anne's County Board of Commissioners predicted that the project would not go forward. The permit that was denied is needed in part for outfall drains to funnel storm water from the site into nearby creeks. Storm water management measures are legally required for any development.
"It's likely they'd have to go back to the drawing board and start over," said Eric S. Wargotz, president of the county board.
John E. Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, called the state board's vote against the development "devastating" to business' trust in government. He noted that the state secretaries of planning and environment had both told the board the development complies with existing laws.
"When a business, I don't care what the business is, spends years investing and preparing for a project, complies with all the laws and regulations, and [the project] gets tossed out, it's mind-boggling," Kortecamp said.
Chris Rachuba, president of the Baltimore-area homebuilders group, said the project's denial represents a challenge to the state's decade-old Smart Growth law, which aims to encourage development in and around existing communities. The project was in an area designated for growth by the county, and it would have been served by public water and sewer.
With planners projecting that the Eastern Shore's population could grow by 150,000 people in the next 20 or 30 years, Rachuba said, "we need to have a place to put them." He contended that a relatively dense development such as Four Seasons would cause less harm to the bay than spreading all those new residents out on 3- and 4-acre rural lots with wells and septic systems.
The governor attempted to reassure developers that the rules for getting real estate projects approved haven't been thrown out.
O'Malley said there are many suitable places to build across the state that do not pose the environmental risks the Four Seasons development did.
"There are many pieces of land suitable to build 1,350 homes other than on an island of the Eastern Shore," the governor said, adding: "Common sense should have told [the developers] seven years ago what they were told two days ago."
Environmentalists, while hailing what one called a "landmark" decision in favor of protecting the bay, vowed to hold the governor to his remarks Wednesday about tightening the state's environmental and growth-management laws.
"If this proposal taught us one thing, it's that our laws are not strong enough to protect the bay and the environment," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She blamed a "piecemeal" review of the project by local and state governments for letting the Four Seasons project get as far as it did.
Of particular concern, she said, is the state's 23-year-old Critical Area law, which is supposed to limit development within 1,000 feet of the bay and its tributaries.
Under the law, counties are allowed to designate some of their undeveloped shoreline for growth, and Queen Anne's officials did that for the Four Seasons project. The local decision was approved several years ago by the state Critical Area Commission.
"Just because you can build in a Critical Area doesn't mean you should," Coble said.
Four Seasons is the second large-scale development proposed for the Eastern Shore to be derailed by a state agency after winning local approval. The Critical Area Commission blocked a 2,700-home golf resort last fall near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County, and the state later bought most of the land to preserve it.
Such large projects "are really illuminating the gaps, the inadequacy of our current regulatory scheme," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, which advocates compact development.