Protesters help scuttle bill to stiffen illegal-building penalties

August 07, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun Reporter

A bill that would have given Anne Arundel County the ability to hand down stiffer penalties for building illegally along the Chesapeake Bay was yanked by the county administration after receiving heavy criticism from protesters and County Council members at a public hearing this week.

Critics argued Monday night that the critical area bill robbed residents of due process by giving too much authority to the county's Department of Inspections and Permits, which would have been able to take decisive action without a lengthy litigation process - a feature county officials had called a plus. Dozens of protesters attended the council hearing wearing shirts that read "Stop the Zoning Gestapo."

The measure, part of an effort by County Executive John R. Leopold to crack down on illegal building along the county's shoreline, was introduced as a companion to a beefed-up state law that took effect July 1 and requires each county to set up its own "administrative enforcement program."

"I thought it was a terrible bill," said Republican Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks. "If the state wants to make it their initiative, then let them do it. I don't want to be a part of depriving basic rights from our citizens."

Leopold said in an interview Tuesday that the administration would likely reintroduce the legislation before the end of the year and possibly within weeks.

"Right now, we're allowing a far more onerous state law to dictate what our critical area law policy should be and allowing state law to dictate that citizens have to wait a long period of time to have their issues resolved," said Leopold, a Republican. "The county approach would have granted more expeditious relief.

"I have fought to allow the county to be in control of its own destiny, and I believe the proposed ordinance would have been significantly more advantageous to county residents than the state law."

The county's proposed ordinance would have forced 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 damage to the environment.

The consent order would have to 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.

Under the current system, it takes several months or even years for cases to wind through the courts and appeals process, said Deputy County Attorney David A. 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."

Leopold said the county will explore ways to increase awareness of building laws and regulations so that fewer residents inadvertently commit violations. Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican, said she is concerned that many violations stem from a lack of understanding about regulations.

Also at Monday night's meeting, the County Council unanimously supported legislation that would extend the county's fly ash ban until October 2009. The current ban was set to expire in October 2008. Officials said the extension will allow the state Department of the Environment to put permanent regulations in place regarding fly ash placement in Maryland.

For 12 years ending in 2007, Constellation Energy worked with a contractor to dump thousands of tons of waste ash from its Brandon Shores coal-fired power plant into an unlined former gravel pit in Gambrills. Constellation and BBSS Inc., the site owner, have agreed to stop dumping ash.

"I am hopeful that this extension will give the state enough time to get the necessary regulations in place to protect Marylanders from this harmful, carcinogenic hazard," Leopold said in a statement. "... This administration cannot wait until that happens to protect the health of Anne Arundel County citizens."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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