Saga of Sullivan Cove

Pier debate spurs Md. environmental officials to launch review of rules

March 30, 2009|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,

Walk along the beach at Sullivan Cove in Severna Park and enjoy the serenity. You might see a heron swoop through rare Atlantic white cedar to an adjacent tidal pond.

Some community residents, worried that all that could be destroyed, waged a long and expensive fight to stop three homeowners from getting permits to build piers there. The opponents did not succeed, but the debate has prompted state environmental officials to launch a review of rules covering residential pier construction, particularly in environmentally sensitive tidal wetlands.

"Sullivan Cove was kind of the tripwire for the department to move forward with a task force," said Gary Setzer, a Maryland Department of the Environment program manager. "The desire is to get a real good cross section from the environmental side and from the commercial construction side."

The panel is to make recommendations to next year's session of the General Assembly, and environmental officials say that rule changes could apply to all residential pier construction permits along the state's waterways. The Maryland Department of the Environment issues about 900 pier permits a year.

The Sullivan Cove debate was unusual because interest extended beyond the immediate neighbors, Setzer said.

Sullivan Cove was named one of about 500 Gems of the Severn by the Severn River Commission in 1988.

"The tidal pond in Sullivan Cove has ecological, historical and scenic value for this private community," Maryland's environmental secretary, Shari Wilson, said in a statement released when the permits were issued this month. "However, our agency must implement statutory and regulatory requirements in a fair and consistent manner, and our obligation is to implement the law, as it exists today, to protect the environment and public health."

The department required the applicants to modify the number and length of the piers because of environmental concerns. The permits authorize three homeowners to build two several-hundred-foot piers, including one shared pier, that cross the tidal pond and extend into the Severn to provide deep-water access to the river.

"The permits issued ... are based on scientific and environmental data," Wilson said. "If the applicants comply with MDE's required changes, there will be no significant long-term environmental impact from the piers."

The Olde Severna Park Improvement Association paid about $300,000 in legal expenses in its effort to block the permits, said Ted Kinkel, a member who has lived in Severna Park since 2004.

The community association said the proposed piers, which it referred to as "bridges," would disturb vegetation and cause lasting damage to a fragile wetland ecosystem. The tidal pond is home to the spotted turtle, listed by conservation groups as "threatened" because of its declining numbers, and Atlantic white cedar, which along with those at a nearby tidal marsh account for 51 percent of the mature trees of the species on Maryland's Western Shore, according to a census.

Further, a consultant hired by the community and by other environmental groups suggested that any disruption to the marsh and tidal flow could endanger the tidal pond altogether.

In 2007, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the permit applicants have riparian rights to the water and that state law allows them to make improvements to their homes to gain access to the Severn River.

"We are just plain sick about it," said Austin Bachmann, president of the association. "... We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, untold amounts of time and effort by many of our members, and tireless efforts to fight this, and we just feel totally let down."

Others have supported the community association's efforts, including Dels. Pamela G. Beidle and Virginia P. Clagett. The two Anne Arundel Democrats introduced a bill last month to prohibit those who own land on "navigable water" from making improvements into the water in front of their property if the improvements would be made over vegetated state wetlands.

But Patience Windsor, one of the homeowners who applied for a permit, said she thought officials at the Department of the Environment "did what they were supposed to do."

"I think all of us are relieved that it's over," said Windsor, who has lived along Sullivan Cove since 2001. "It's been a long process, and it's been hard for everybody. ... Certainly, it's been hard for my family. ... We're not just putting in a walkway and a pier. We plan to add a natural shoreline."

Jamie Schmidt, another of the homeowners granted a permit, said an approved path was built this month. "We are not anti-environmentalists," Schmidt said, "but we're not extremists either, as we share our concern for the environment in line with most people who live along the water. We have strived to find a balance with nature to enjoy what we and all waterfront property owners with these bundles of rights come to expect."

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