Critical decisions

January 08, 2008

When the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law was passed by the General Assembly, it was considered the bold centerpiece to Gov. Harry R. Hughes' effort to restore the nation's largest estuary. Land-use issues had long been treated as the sole province of local government. For the first time, the state would have a say on how land within 1,000 feet of the water's edge would be used.

But 24 years later, it's clear that the statute needs to be updated. Too often, the goals of the law have been ignored and the 29-member panel charged with overseeing it, the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission, has lacked the necessary authority.

In two high-profile cases, property owners in Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore and Anne Arundel County have flouted the requirements, building in one case a hunting lodge and cabins on a Nanticoke River island, and, in the other, a palatial home on the Magothy River's Dobbins Island, without consent - or, ultimately, much consequence.

That's because enforcing the law is largely the responsibility of county government, which also has the authority to grant variances. The combination of both has allowed far more development in the critical areas than anyone imagined in 1984.

Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to propose changes to the law in the next several weeks. The first step will likely be to update the three-decades-old maps that define the critical areas. Rising water levels and eroding shoreline have made them outdated.

But the administration's approach needs to be more ambitious than that. The commission needs the authority to draft regulations, something it can't currently do. Even more important, the law needs to set some limits on variances. Some are perfectly reasonable - a corner of a deck that juts out into the critical area, for instance - but some are not. Counties often lack the staff or expertise to make proper judgments in these matters.

The counties are likely to raise a fuss about any significant changes to the law, but they need to remember that the critical areas are just that, a critical last line of defense to keep pollutants from the bay. The Chesapeake is a shared resource and therefore all Marylanders, and not just local officials, deserve to have a say in decisions that have an impact on it. Right now, that level of accountability simply doesn't exist.

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