Proposal would toughen critical area law in county

Building without a permit could lead to demolition of structure

July 20, 2008|By Steven Stanek | Steven Stanek,Sun Reporter

Anne Arundel County could soon have some of the stiffest penalties in Maryland for violations of critical area laws.

A proposed ordinance could force homeowners and contractors caught building without a permit in the critical area - land within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries - to sign a consent order admitting guilt and agreeing to a plan to repair the impact on the environment.

The consent order must be signed in order to apply for a retroactive permit that would allow the structure to stand, officials said. Failure to sign would be grounds for the county to tear down the structure.

"I've taken a strong stance from the outset of my administration to strictly enforce our environmental laws, including those laws that pertain to the violation in the critical area," said County Executive John R. Leopold. "We have more miles of shoreline than any other jurisdiction in the state, so it's especially pertinent to this county."

At Leopold's request, Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale submitted the legislation as part of his administration's crackdown on illegal building on Anne Arundel's 530 miles of shoreline.

Last year, he asked state lawmakers to extend the statute of limitations from one to three years for building and grading violations in the protected zone. He also introduced a county bill that would impose a $500-a-day fine on those who live in homes built without permits.

The latest measure is part of a beefed-up state law that took effect July 1 that requires each county to set up its own "administrative enforcement program." Among other provisions, the state law also sets a maximum penalty of $10,000 and up to 90 days in jail for the most serious violations.

Deputy county attorney David A. Plymyer said the county law would be even tougher than the state law because of the language of the county consent order, which would set a series of strict deadlines for those seeking retroactive permits. Plymyer said the timetable has not been determined, but that the county will mete out a $500-a-day penalty for missed deadlines.

Plymyer said the tougher stance is necessary to fight the "epidemic" of illegal building in Anne Arundel County.

"We do a lot of cases, but we have been fighting a bit of a losing battle in terms of deterring some of these serious violators," he said.

County attorneys prosecuted 159 building, grading, zoning and health violations in the critical area last year, but had 166 cases unresolved at the end of the year, said supervising county attorney Nancy McCutchan Duden. The total of 325 cases - which does not include those resolved outside of the courts - marked a 38 percent jump over 2006. A total of $81,930 in civil fines was imposed in those cases, Duden said.

But under the current system, it takes several months or even years for cases to wind through the courts and appeals process, said Plymyer, adding that the penalties for violations, which are handed down only at the discretion of judges, are not high enough to be a "sufficient deterrent." He acknowledged that under the current system, it can be easier for a homeowner to build first and ask for forgiveness later.

In a prominent case in 2004, county inspectors discovered a mansion that was built without permits on a privately owned, two-acre island on the Magothy River. A county administrator later granted Daryl C. Wagner, owner of Little Dobbins Island, retroactive variances to keep the house, but not the accessory structures.

Mary Owens, education and conservation coordinator of the Critical Area Commission, said the county board of appeals, which decides many of the retroactive permit cases, can be reluctant to order the demolition or modification of existing structures. Plymyer refuted that, saying the board takes critical area cases seriously.

Betty Dixon, Anne Arundel's director of planning and zoning, said the new ordinance would require three times the amount of environmental repairs from those who build illegally. Currently, violators must make reparations such as planting an area of trees to the square footage of the new structure, Dixon said.

She also said the new ordinance would allow the county to take decisive action without a lengthy litigation process. "If you don't agree to enter into the administrative consent order and follow the specified time period, we go right to court and we take your structure down," said Dixon.

Plymyer agreed, saying that the mere threat of jail time - which is part of the state law - will give the ordinance more "bite" and "sting."

But Susan Stroud, director of government affairs for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, questioned the legality of the county's ordinance, on which a public hearing is scheduled for Aug. 4.

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