Senate passes bay bill

Effort to toughen Critical Area law amended to ease setback rules

April 05, 2008|By Bradley Olson and Timothy B. Wheeler | Bradley Olson and Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporters

The Maryland Senate passed legislation yesterday that would further tighten shoreline development restrictions in an effort to save the Chesapeake Bay from decline, though legislators amended a key provision that the bill's supporters said would weaken the effort.

By a 32-14 margin, the chamber voted to shrink the proposed 300-foot setback for some new construction on rural shoreline to 200 feet, a move that concerned the bill's sponsors and environmentalists, who worry that it might not provide enough protection to the bay from polluted runoff.

"I'm going to pour my heart out to you today," said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican, who pleaded with colleagues not to limit the ability of property owners to build on their land. He also spoke of the prevalence of bald eagles in Dorchester County and the beauty of seeing so much wildlife from his home, which sits just 100 feet from a Chesapeake Bay tributary. "I didn't get much sleep last night thinking about this."

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the legislation, sponsored by Gov. Martin O'Malley, had been carefully drafted and would not affect current property holders.

"No one testified against this bill," he said, adding it had the support of local counties and builders.

The bill calls for greater coordination between the state and local governments on enforcing the 25-year-old Critical Area law, particularly when granting property owners variances from waterfront building curbs. It provides for building contractors to lose their licenses for knowing violations of the law, and it requires tighter scrutiny of any new growth proposed along pristine shoreline.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, another Eastern Shore Republican, said the only impact the amendment would have would be to make it so there is "a little less habitat for wildlife."

He recalled when he bought property before Maryland's Critical Area law passed 24 years ago. The law regulates development within 1,000 feet of the bay -- a strip of waterfront dubbed "critical area" because of its vital role in shielding the bay from runoff and in protecting wildlife.

Stoltzfus said the value of his property went down after the initial law passed, and he warned of a similar impact from the proposed tightening of waterfront building limits.

"It's the landowners this affects," he said. "They don't have a lobbyist down here."

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the bill had the opposite impact on property values, sending them ever higher.

"It's not a question of whether you can build a house on your property, it's a question of where you can build a house," he said, noting that it would just have to be farther back from the water.

bradley.olson@baltsun.com tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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