The Trouble with Piers
How big is too big?
by Carrie Steele
Square footage wasn’t on the minds of the Holland Pointers who use their breezy private piers to watch the sun rise and read the daily mood of the waters that lap against their fingers into the Bay, many rebuilt after Hurricane Isabel’s fury.
But in September a curt letter arrived, followed by visits from state regulators and the Army Corps of Engineers, notifying three dozen Bayfront homeowners that they were breaking the law. To fit their permits, homeowners would have to shell out big bucks or start their own chainsaws to downsize their pier-end platforms.
Now Holland Point pier owners are stopped at a checkpoint that could move through communities up and down the Bay.
Staying in the Lines
In question are not piers themselves but the end platforms, where owners often set up picnic tables and chairs for lounging or build connecting lower docks for water access. State legislation from the 1970s sets 200-square-foot limits on those platforms.
“People are replacing their piers beyond legal requirements,” says Maryland Department of Environment spokesman Richard McIntire. “After Isabel, there was a general permit for people to rebuild their piers on the original footprint. But some people have expanded when they rebuilt.”
Even contractors who built outside the permit allowances can be held accountable.
Bringing in the Pier Police
How the flurry of official attention started, the Army Corps of Engineers won’t reveal. Community gossip traces it to an unneighborly squabble.
“There was a lady at the other end of Holland Point building a shed or something,” Christopher ‘Kip’ Suss, said on hearsay. “Her neighbor complained about it. I’m not sure what was wrong with it. In retaliation, she complained about his pier being too close to the property line.”
Whatever the reason, Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corp of Engineers paid autumnal visits to the southernmost Anne Arundel community, which hairpins around the south shore of Herring Bay onto the open Bay.
In this version of the story, the neighbor with the pier near the property line topped the visiting list.
“They told him he had to cut it back because it crossed over the line,” Suss recalled. “So I think he did do that. But while they were there, he said, if I’m in violation then all these other piers are in violation, too.”
Like a hurricane gaining speed and power from a tropical depression, so did trouble brew up and down the community of some 300 homes, about one-third of them waterfront.
Soon, homeowners got letters, and visits, from the Army Corp of Engineers, ordering smaller platforms on the piers that stretch out from almost every waterfront home. Thirty or more pier-owners got letters from the Department of Environment and the Corps complaining that their platforms measured over the 200-square-foot limit.
“Everyone started getting letters,” said Suss, who was one of the homeowners whose pier was deemed over its permit limit.
The platform on the end of Suss’ one-year-old, 120-foot pier is some 600-square-feet now, he says. He says he needed the extra space to accommodate a lower platform giving him water access. He says he knew his new pier would exceed his permit, but he never thought that it would be a problem.
Maryland Department of Environment spokesman Richard McIntire tells a slightly different account.
“One of the things that tipped us off was that an individual applied for a pier for something that was way too big,” said McIntire, whose agency denied the permit. “Not happy with being denied, the man said, I’ll do what my neighbors did.”
That’s when McIntire’s department visited to compare permit to actual measurements.
For now, the pier dispute appears to be restricted to one Bayfront community in southern Anne Arundel County. But these are state and federal laws, and the statute has the potential of causing ripples up and down the Chesapeake Bay, if uniformly enforced.
Navigating Legal Waters
Setting the rules are two laws: Maryland state law, which limits the piers’ platform size, and the federal law, Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, a 19th century ruling that anything that goes over or under navigable waters has to be approved by the Army Corp of Engineers. Suss’ 2003 permit from the Corps allowed him to build a 200-square-foot platform.
“The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 gave the government a right to prohibit things that would impede navigation, but obviously these piers don’t,” counters Suss.
Water at the end of his pier is only about three feet deep, he says. You can barely get a boat near the pier, let alone navigate a ship.
The Balance of Reason
The Army Corps of Engineers’ letters seemed out-of-the-blue to waterfront homeowners in this quiet Bayfront community on the Anne Arundel/Calvert County line. They puzzled as to why the Corps suddenly told them to downsize the platforms at the end of their piers to about 200 square feet, or about the size of a porch on an old Bay house.
“Some of these piers have been down here for decades,” says Suss. “The other side of the Point, facing east, all got wiped out in Isabel, and those people had them rebuilt.”
Many Holland Pointers returned their citations, signing off that they were indeed in violation; others wrote back requesting an explanation on why they had to downsize.
Like the resisters, Suss maintains that concentrating on a few feet is wasteful, especially when other violations plague the Bay every day.
“We feel that we are being unfairly singled out when hundreds of piers of the Bay and its tributaries probably violate the 200-square-foot rule,” wrote Suss in a letter to Bay Weekly.
To make his point, he’s formed an alliance with neighbors who also oppose the 200-square-foot rule. They’re in discussion with a lawyer, and, he says, are prepared to stand up in court, if necessary.
But they’ll have a long way to go, as the Corps’ way, according to Chanel Weaver, of the Corps’ Baltimore district, is to try to work person by person through administrative means.
“A lot of times, we fine as a last resort,” Weaver said.
Rules of the Game
The Army Corp of Engineers has records of its permits dating back to the 1800s, said Sandy Zellen, enforcement officer for the Corps. She wouldn’t talk about the specific case of the Holland Point community, but she says in theory that such a violation could result in up to $500 penalty and criminal charges.
Piers built before the laws have their own permits, says McIntire, whose agency makes sure people have the permit to build bigger.
“The bottom line and what a lot of people don’t realize is that those waters belong to the state of Maryland; they don’t own those waters,” McIntire said. “People figure if they buy waterfront, all they see becomes theirs. It’s our job to make sure that resource is managed appropriately.”
“Those are the rules that everyone plays by,” Zellen adds.
The Quest for Answers
“There’s a big question mark as to why they’re doing this,” said Woody Young, a Holland Point resident who also helps measure the environmental effects of the community sea wall, stone riprap buttressing a wood retaining wall. He responded to the Corps citation with a letter of his own asking for more explanation.
“They came to the house and walked out on the pier and spent a lot of time over something that has no negative impact on any environmental or navigational issue,” he says.
The Department of Environment begs to differ.
“If you put in something larger, you could change some of the geology of an area,” McIntire said. “Or sometimes you build things that can have an impact further downstream.” Such structures can determine how the sand moves or builds up. If the structure blocks or creates a hindrance or creates a flow, it can actually change how the shoreline is formed, he explains. “You can’t have individuals creating anything they want.”