Volume 16, Issue 25 - June 19 - June 25, 2008

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Losing the Battle to Save the Bay

I see it happening at home

We shall fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets …

–Winston Churchill: Speech on Dunkirk in the House of Commons, June 4, 1940

Some 68 years following Churchill’s famous speech to bolster the world’s spirits in the darkest days of World War II, there’s fighting on the beaches, the launching ramps, the fields and the streets up here in North County where I live. Normally, Riviera Beach lies within Pasadena as a small, placid and fun place to live eight miles from downtown Baltimore. Lately we’ve made the news more than we’d like.

There have been scandals involving the volunteer fire department and a big controversy involving the sale of a triangle of community property that happens to lie across the road from my house where Park Road and Echo Drive meet. Most recent is the wrist slapping of a judge who did some littering — big time — at the point where Stoney Creek meets the Patapsco River, less than a mile from my east lawn.

Changing Ways in Beach Communities

Oscar Wilde hit the nail on the head in the Ballad of Reading Gaol: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.”

Some among those fortunate enough to buy waterfront property want the works: boat slips, beachfront and such. To them, a natural and environmentally friendly shoreline is wasted space. Improve, improve and improve.

But in Riviera Beach, as in other waterfront properties of Chesapeake Bay, there’s a thin perimeter of land surrounding the beach that is owned by a holding company. Has been for ages; always will be, I hope. That’s to keep development from mushrooming on the beachfront to the detriment of Stoney and Rock creeks and the Patapsco just a long cast from its confluence with Chesapeake Bay.

It might be true that our home is our castle, and we can do what we want inside. But when one’s home occupies waterfront land, said land cannot be considered part of the castle. Not when one wants to create what one would call improvements. Improvements for the landowner; headaches for the Bay.

Today’s Riviera Beach isn’t really a beach. On some of the shoreline is some natural sand, but not on all of it. Some would like to enlarge their beach; others think a dock would be a convenient and fashionable place for their boat.

Though rules of the community make it plain and clear the perimeter of Riviera Beach is not legally theirs, some keep trying to sneak something in. Maybe no one will notice.

Not many swim in Riviera Beach, though they did once upon a time when the community was a summer home area for many in Baltimore. Today, there are times in the heat of summer when swimming is banned for health reasons. And the bottom of Stoney Creek can be treacherous because of drop-offs and rubble. On the southern edge of Riviera Beach is Rock Creek, simply not a fitting place to swim at any time.

But waterfront is waterfront. Everyone wants it — even if it’s really not waterfront because of that slim strip of community property. Technically, it’s “waterview.”

The Slipping Edge

In recent years, there has been an increasing effort to flout community rules via improvements. In turn, the legal process to thwart encroachment has become complicated, drawn out and increasingly expensive. The county didn’t help much, though many of the improvements involved county waterfront. To get the cash to continue its policy of maintaining the integrity of the shoreline, the Riviera Beach holding company decided to sell the triangle of land of about an acre or two across.

It was sold for one home, which won’t even have a water view. Now some residents are up in arms. It matters not that the proceeds are going for saving the whole community’s waterfront from illegal and irresponsible improvement. It has become neighbor against neighbor with all kinds of accusations including money under the table. It’s continuing to this day and could end up in the courts.

Then last year, the owner of a sizeable piece of waterfront property and showcase home — at the point where Stoney Creek meets the Patapsco — was cited for illegally dumping construction debris on the shoreline. At first it appeared to be the ordinary case of a landowner attempting to fight erosion by creating his own unorthodox and illegal bulkworks. That is until word got out the owner was Baltimore District Court Judge Askew Gatewood.

The dumping was an eyesore in addition to being environmentally unfriendly and blatantly against community, county, state and Bay policy.

As you might suspect, the judge got off much easier than you or I could hope had it been us. Those hundreds of tons of debris will cost him a $10,000 fine, the expense of cleaning up the waterfront and a year of unsupervised probation. Oh, yes, another $6,500 in damages to Anne Arundel County. The judge pleaded not guilty to just one count of illegally dumping on wetlands.

Does that tell us something about what the judiciary (both the offending judge and Anne Arundel County District Judge Eugene M. Lerner who tried the case) thinks about the environmental laws of the Bay we’re trying to save? Put me alongside the Sierra Club’s David Prosten who noted: “Judges, after all, are law enforcement officers, and as such they have a special responsibility to be that much more mindful.”

Who Do We Think We Are?

The effort for individual citizens to manage environmentally sensitive lands at their own discretion plays a major role in the shortcomings of efforts to restore the Chesapeake to what she once was. Methinks a citizen who wants property on a waterfront has the added responsibility of using that land for the betterment of the Chesapeake.

Unless we can knock that into the selfish heads of those who have other ideas, we’re going to continue losing the battle to save the Bay. We need more of the philosophy of the Native Americans, who considered themselves stewards of the land for future generations, not for what they could take from it for themselves. Enough said.

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