Setting a greener standard

Our view : Maryland must redefine who can challenge polluters, development

March 18, 2009

Two years ago, the Chester River Association discovered that a small Eastern Shore chemical plant was dumping phosphorus and other pollutants into a Kent County creek. Workers and volunteers from the watchdog group took numerous samples, had them analyzed and provided the evidence to state officials, who brought legal action against the plant's owners.

But the association's participation in the lawsuit was short-lived. A Kent County Circuit Court judge ruled last year that the group lacked legal standing and threw them out. Under Maryland case law, the plaintiff generally needs to be a neighbor within "sight or sound" range to be considered an aggrieved party.

The result? The state settled with the plant under terms the advocates would never have agreed to, and association officials believe the discharges continue.

It's high time Maryland law was amended to broaden the definition of legal standing. One shouldn't have to own a neighboring property to oppose a state sediment control permit or to ask a judge to rule against the licensing of a hazardous waste incinerator. The standard used in federal cases is much more generous (it includes, for instance, all those who might suffer injury), and 44 states meet or exceed that standard.

Under current state law, it's difficult for nonprofits such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to challenge decisions that could harm water quality unless a neighbor joins their effort. Build a dream home on a Magothy River island? Once the county approved the project (retroactively), there was no way to challenge it: Advocates couldn't appeal the variance because there were no immediate neighbors. It is, after all, an island.

Legislation offered by Baltimore Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, and supported by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler would bring the state in line with federal policy. The measure faces stiff opposition in the General Assembly from builders, developers and real estate interests. They fear it would set off a bevy of lawsuits and harm an industry hurting from falling prices and a credit crunch.

But that argument seems foolish when all that's sought is the same standard applied elsewhere without ill effect on the economy. And while certain developers might, indeed, be inconvenienced, it would be to the benefit of most everyone else. The more polluted the Chesapeake Bay and other natural resources become, air, land and water included, the less desirable it is to live here and, ultimately, the more likely it is for everyone's home values to fall.

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