For years, residents of waterfront Riviera Beach have paid about $100 in extra annual taxes for their Anne Arundel County community's shoreline, money that has funded everything from dredging projects and bulkhead repairs to fixing the damage from Tropical Storm Isabel.
But in recent months, some residents have started questioning how this little-known special tax district has been managing its money. They have focused on a project that was never put out to competitive bid, even as its costs nearly doubled from the original estimate. And they have cast doubt on the sale of a community-owned piece of land to a contractor.
Suddenly, the once-sleepy monthly association meetings have become quite contentious, with about 150 residents appearing last week and moving to impeach the group's president. The Maryland Department of the Environment has halted a dredging project, and the county has told the group to resubmit its budget or risk being denied funding.
"I think everybody in the community wants these projects to get done, but there's a lot of questions about how this is being handled and where the money is going," said Robynn Squires, one of the residents leading the charge. "They say we're just stirring the pot, but I don't care. That's what we need."
About 1,400 homeowners in Riviera Beach pay additional property taxes each year to maintain the shoreline, an arrangement that is not unlike dozens of others across Maryland. In Crofton, for example, residents make additional payments to maintain local roads and operate a police force.
Anne Arundel County has more than a dozen other waterfront communities where the erosion tax is also collected. These arrangements require a small group of community volunteers to identify, set up and pay for major public works initiatives. The county's only involvement is approving the projects as part of the overall budget process - a line item among hundreds of pages.
"Essentially, the county is saying to the community association, `You're the administrators,' and in many communities, a handful of people are doing all the work," said Teresa Sutherland, the Anne Arundel County auditor.
But Squires and some others in Riviera Beach say the autonomy has allowed a small group of people to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with little oversight. The contractor and developer awarded Riviera Beach's erosion projects over the years, C.A. Norris Inc., is the same company that was sold the community land with no public discussion.
John Robbins, head of the corporation that owns much of the land between homes and the water, dismisses the complaints as coming from angry neighbors with their own agendas. The association president, Edward P. Kiley, said he has regrets about the land sale, but he notes that those who are raising objections should have been more active over the years.
"We're volunteers, and we do the best we can. Something like this is a slap in the face," said Kiley, a retired BGE employee and 47-year resident of Riviera Beach.
Although Riviera Beach is at the confluence of the Patapsco River and Stony Creek, residents are often reminded that few actually have waterfront homes. What they have are water-view homes.
The community has 82 acres of shoreline - walkways, beaches, a playground and piers. In 1961, a private company called the Riverbea Corp. was established to hold title to the community property "for the benefit of the property owners and residents," according to a newsletter. Riverbea, not the residents, owns the land between their lot lines and the water.
Residents say they have never had input into the operations of Riverbea, which maintains a presence at community meetings but has refused to share details of its inner workings. That was largely inconsequential until last year, however, when Riverbea decided to sell a piece of the property.
The sale was not disclosed for months, eventually mentioned during an association meeting in September, according to meeting minutes.
In a statement to residents issued three months later, Riverbea said it had been unable to find real estate agents willing to take on the sale of the property. So Riverbea found a buyer on its own: Barry Tiernan, of Norris Construction, who purchased the property for $145,000 and promised to build only one house there.
Tiernan's marine contracting company, C.A. Norris Inc., has been awarded contracts in Riviera Beach for decades - including replenishing the beach area and replacing bulkheads.
Records show that the replenishment project was originally budgeted at about $200,000 in 2005. But by last year the cost had risen to $365,000, which Robbins - the head of Riverbea - said was because of changes in the scope of the work.
Squires says the project was never put out to bid to find builders who would do the work at a cost closer to the original projection. Robbins says he didn't want to dump Tierney, who had invested so much time.