Volume 16, Issue 32 - August 7 - August 13, 2008

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Let Them Eat Cake — But Give Them Due Process

In case you missed it, a busload of property-owners and elected activists succeeded this week in forcing Anne Arundel County officials to withdraw legislation to codify a new state law aimed at limiting destructive activities along Chesapeake Bay.

The scene reminded us of the 18th century French farmers who showed up with pitchforks to greet the first hot-air balloon.

There was hot air aplenty in the county council chambers Monday, and a European flavor, too, with the anti-enforcement crowd clad in T-shirts reading Stop the Zoning Gestapo.

To borrow a British phrase, folks had gotten their knickers in a twist worrying that the county zoning office might become overly aggressive enforcing a new state law to protect the fragile lands that front the Bay.

Lest we forget what this is about, the General Assembly last spring overhauled the state’s rickety old Critical Area law in hopes of stemming the ruin of wetlands and the runoff of fertilizers and assorted killing juices slowly destroying Maryland’s most valuable economic resource.

Those dead zones and the certifiable crises in our oyster and crab fisheries didn’t come about naturally.

The new law gives the Critical Area Commission more power over land-use decisions and beefs up enforcement standards for people trying to build or pave along the 1,750 miles of Bay shoreline.

As part of a bipartisan agreement, the General Assembly allowed counties to retain control over enforcement, albeit with little assistance in the way of funding.

Hence the new effort by Anne Arundel, Calvert and other counties to educate Marylanders about provisions of the new law, among them a requirement that contractors operating in the Critical Area have a license before working on structures like docks, bulkheads and stone revetments.

In Anne Arundel, Leopold has been rightly proactive (though a tad preachy) in declaring a zero-tolerance policy, fueling this week’s uprising. His legal beagles apparently drafted their implementing bill too tightly, limiting due process of landowners accused of buffer infractions. So the bill got yanked.

Where do we go from here?

First, the Critical Area Commission needs to stand back and see what is happening around us. Our surging gas prices and approaching oil shortages will change more than our driving habits.

For many years, counties have allowed, if not encouraged, low-density suburban living, one of the reasons so many of us live along the Bay and work a long way from home.

In this transformative moment, it is not hard to see the future, which is different from the present. Before long, many Americans may no longer be able to afford living in Bayfront communities or on rural ranchettes a great distance from where they earn their paychecks.

The county should come back with more palatable legislation giving people appropriate rights to contest alleged critical area sins — and to prevail if they’re proved right. And people should chill.

Speaking of chilled, back in 18th century France, the brothers who floated that famous hot air balloon mollified the pitchforkers with bottles of champagne.

Leopold may or may not want to break out the bubbly at the next meeting, but he ought to give the masses a good bill and assurances that the county will be fair.

© COPYRIGHT 2008 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.