Vol. 10, No. 2

January 10-16, 2002

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Critical Areas Needing Critical Reform

Today’s pop quiz has one question:

Q. What is a variance?

Does your answer resemble ours?

A. A variance is a ticket to ignore critical-area laws, often given to persistent commercial interests bent on developing fragile land along Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland’s critical-area law will be on the radar screen in the new General Assembly. In our view, it’s way past time.

The 18-year-old law is an extraordinarily valuable tool to prevent construction within 100 feet of Chesapeake Bay, thereby limiting runoff and pollution while protecting the integrity and beauty of the shoreline.

Unfortunately, these protections have been increasingly ignored by land-use officers and, since 1999, eroded by court rulings.

We’re not yapping here about minor improvements sought by Bayfront homeowners. What concerns us are beachfront hotels, apartment complexes and out-of-scale projects like those that have won variances in Calvert County.

Gov. Parris Glendening has said he will work to strengthen the critical-area law in what will be the last of eight General Assemblies during which he has been in office.

He remarked recently that three Maryland Court of Appeals decisions had created “loopholes big enough to drive development tractors right through.”

We applaud the governor’s feistiness. Glendening will be recalled for preserving sensitive lands in Maryland, and none are more sensitive than the marshy lowlands along the Chesapeake that developers want to fill with dirt.

We think it would be a fitting legislative triumph if the governor successfully invests some of his remaining political capital into strengthening the critical-area law. While we applaud Maryland’s Smart Growth laws championed by Glendening, we sometimes think, as we watch ranchettes and subdivisions spread like kudzu in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties, that Smart Growth is a paper tiger.

We don’t think that members of the General Assembly need the governor’s endorsement before proceeding with their own efforts to toughen critical-area protections. Local zoning boards of appeals need to have clearly stated reasons to say no when developers and their lawyers come knocking.

Similarly, the state Critical Area Commission, the final arbiter in these decisions, needs to have more authority to tell localities that they made a mistake.

We need to keep in mind why critical-area legislation was passed in the first place: to provide a buffer between Chesapeake Bay and the teeming civilization that would destroy it.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly