Little turtle, big fight

Reptile is latest weapon in dispute over pier construction in Arundel

June 08, 2008|By Steven Stanek | Steven Stanek,Sun Reporter

Environmental activists have a new weapon in their four-year-old battle to stop homeowners in a waterfront corner of Severna Park from building private piers: a spotted turtle.

The reptile - which animal conservation groups list as a "threatened" species because of its declining population - was discovered May 31 near Sullivan Cove on the Severn River, which is at the center of an impassioned and complicated land dispute that reached the highest court in Maryland.

The Olde Severna Park Improvement Association Inc., the pier opponents who lost one case in December before the Court of Appeals, are trying to convince the Court of Special Appeals that the Department of the Environment erred in issuing a permit for a 410-foot walkway and 200-foot connecting pier. The construction, members say, would harm the turtle's fragile habitat.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's Maryland section on the pier construction in Sullivan Cove gave an incorrect location for a public meeting. The meeting is 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. June 17 in the Carpenter Lecture Hall, on the third floor of the McCleary Student Center at the Severn School in Severna Park.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Mike Slattery, a former assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and co-president of the community association, said he found the turtle, with its yellow-spotted black shell, while training his hunting dog in the marshland.

"It's a really cool thing to know that a population of species that is sensitive and declining lives so close to my home," said Slattery. "Obviously, it occurred to me later that this would be one more facet of the regulatory decision."

It would not be the first time that wildlife changed the course of major development. In the late 1970s, a tiny fish called the snail darter in the Little Tennessee River made national headlines when its discovery halted the construction of the Tellico Dam, a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Closer to home, the 2001 discovery near Fort Meade of a single knee-high plant known as the many-headed rush - which experts thought had vanished from Maryland - delayed plans to develop part of Tipton Airport.

But an official at the DNR, which determined in an April report that the construction of three proposed piers into Sullivan Cove could affect water flow and threaten the ecosystem, said the turtle will not be at risk if the piers are built.

"The spotted turtle is probably not going to be all that impacted by this," said Glenn Therres, associate director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service at DNR. "The spotted turtle is not common ... but it does not have any bearing on permit issues relating to wetlands."

The state does not categorize the spotted turtle as threatened or endangered, but it is on the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The IUCN characterized the spotted turtle as "vulnerable" because its population has been reduced by at least 20 percent over the past decade and is expected to drop by another 20 percent in the next 10 years. The cause of the decline, according to the IUCN, is its shrinking "area of occupancy."

The spotted turtle is also listed as a "conservation concern" by the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, of which the DNR is a member.

Slattery, the conservation expert who found the turtle, said the turtle is less common than the diamondback terrapin, the commercial harvest of which was banned by the state last year.

But Thomas P. Jackson, one of the homeowners who filed for a pier permit, said the turtle's discovery could be the latest in a series of desperate attempts by opponents to block construction.

"I think it's very coincidental that now they find this spotted turtle," he said. "They have absolutely no bullets left in the gun."

Opponents first tried to block the pier construction on the argument that the community association - not homeowners Paul and Joan Gunby - had waterfront-access rights. There are two shorter, older public piers on the tip of the cove.

The dispute appeared to end in December when the Court of Appeals affirmed that Dann and Janet Thomasson, who later bought the Gunbys' property, have the right to build the pier and bridge.

That decision bode well for two of the Thomassons' neighbors, who filed for permits to build even longer piers and were awaiting the outcome of the case.

But opponents of the pier have remained undeterred and are challenging the issuance of a state license by the MDE, which must approve construction projects on wetland areas. That case is currently before the Court of Special Appeals, the state's second-highest court, and the permit has been suspended in the interim.

Environmentalists say the hundreds of pilings of the piers, which would be driven into the marsh at 10-foot intervals, would require heavy equipment and weeks of work that would disturb local wildlife.

To minimize the environmental impact, Jackson said, his family has recently decided to share the Thomassons' planned pier instead of building their own.

"What we're doing is literally what thousands of people on the Chesapeake Bay have done: We are exercising our right to our water," he said.

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