State OKs 2 waterfront plans

At 'testy' meeting, O'Malley rebukes state officials over community relations

August 21, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

The Board of Public Works approved two waterfront development proposals yesterday over the objections of environmental activists in Talbot and St. Mary's counties, though Gov. Martin O'Malley issued sharp rebukes to state officials for their handling of community relations.

The board - consisting of O'Malley, State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot - voted unanimously to approve a wetlands license needed for the development of a 30-slip "community marina" at a major new residential development in Easton.

Earlier, the panel approved St. Mary's College of Maryland's $160,000 purchase of private land near the public campus. It also voted to allow the college to solicit proposals for the development of bulkheads, piers and a boat ramp along the St. Mary's River.

Before the meeting, Kopp warned the governor that she was feeling "testy" from lack of sleep, though it was O'Malley who became irritable as the four-hour meeting dragged into the afternoon.

"Maybe in the future we can figure out a way to have a dialogue with the community so that the dialogue is not rushed and people don't feel disrespected?" O'Malley said to Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson once she acknowledged that Easton-area residents were denied a public hearing after a private developer made substantial changes to the pier design.

"Yes, sir," Wilson said.

Several environmental groups testified in opposition to the Easton Village pier, which they said was out of scale with existing structures on the Tred Avon River and would contribute to pollution of the Lower Choptank River watershed, which the state has designated as "impaired." But state Department of the Environment officials said that revised plans by the developer, Virginia-based Elm Street Development, were environmentally sensitive and could help sustain eroding shorelines.

The public works board's vote sets "an unfortunate precedent, and the bay will suffer because of it," Callum Bain, a retired Easton physician and founder of the Talbot River Protection Association, said after the vote.

St. Mary's College officials asked for and received the board's approval to annex about 2.2 acres near the campus as part of the college's plan to acquire and preserve the "viewshed" leading up to the campus and historic St. Mary's City. The board also gave permission for St. Mary's College to begin planning for a shoreline protection and development project on the St. Mary's River that will be paid for in part by federal funds.

Several community activists, joined by Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a St. Mary's County Democrat, asked the board to halt the public liberal arts campus' expansion plans. Dyson argued that the college's recent development of a new boathouse on the St. Mary's River had been environmentally destructive and disrespectful of the heritage of St. Mary's City National Historic Landmark District.

More generally, the senator, who represents the campus in Annapolis, accused St. Mary's College of becoming "elitist" and straying from its public service mission in pursuit of academic prestige.

St. Mary's College President Jane Margaret O'Brien told the board that the school was "aware of the sensitivity" about the waterfront college's environs and has been a strong advocate of healthy shorelines.

A college spokesman, Marc Apter, said that the activists who spoke yesterday had been invited to serve on an advisory committee but had resigned after attending one meeting.

O'Malley chastised O'Brien for the apparent perception in the community that she was acting in a "cavalier" manner. "President O'Brien, I think you have some community relations problems," the governor said, before voting to support the campus' proposals.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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