August 19, 2008

Critical Area Fight Poised for Round 2

By PAMELA WOOD and ERIN COX Staff Writers

The wave of protesting residents who crowded into the County Council chambers two weeks ago to decry new enforcement of environmental laws crushed that proposal, but now they say their fight has not ended.

Residents frustrated with the Critical Area laws - and the county's enforcement of them - are organizing, setting the stage for a prolonged public squabble in the coming months.

As county officials grapple with new state penalties for breaking the environmental law that protects land 1,000 feet from the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay, some residents are forming a countywide group to help protect their property rights.

"The environmental thing is out of control," said Thomas Redmond, a former county councilman and Pasadena businessman who has emerged as a leader in the movement. "They're right, we need to clean up the bay, but they're trying to put 90 percent of the cleanup on 10 percent of the people."

Mr. Redmond and more than 70 supporters in matching red shirts protested the county's most recent attempt to put the tougher state laws into action at an Aug. 4 County Council meeting. County Executive John R. Leopold's administration pulled the bill, but Mr. Leopold said he intends to return with another plan in less than 60 days.

Meanwhile, the phone calls and e-mails have been rolling into Mr. Redmond and his allies, and what started as a north county initiative has begun to spread to all corners of the county, he said. There's even plans to create a DVD to help educate supporters.

County officials and environmentalists said Mr. Redmond's group, which currently does not have a name, is misguided and thwarting important environmental reforms.

"From our perspective, we felt in general the Critical Area Act passed by the state was a good one," said Matt Berres, executive director of the nonprofit South River Federation. "It would be a shame if that good work ... is basically allowed to unravel because of minor concerns that are tangential to the issue."

Council Chairman Cathy Vitale said concerns over other permitting issues should not have been a part of the discussions, referring to many resident's complaints about current enforcement of various land- use rules.

"I think what happened was the community was fearful - scared," she said.

Adopting changes

The debate boils down to how the county will comply with revisions to the Critical Area rules enacted by state lawmakers earlier this year. The state Critical Area rules restrict building along the shoreline, as that area is seen as the last line of defense against pollution flowing into the water.

Under the state's revisions, all counties have to establish an enforcement program that focuses on resolving issues at the county level. The reasoning is that if cases are resolved quicker and extended court battles are avoided, both the property owner and the county are better off - and environmental problems get fixed sooner.

"Every county is required under the new Critical Area bill to develop an administrative program - and the reason is that administrative-enforcement programs are streamlined, they get to the heart of the violation, they get the violation taken care of and it's a much more efficient system. That's what the General Assembly wanted," said Ren Serey, executive director of the Critical Area Commission, the state agency that oversees implementation of the law.

Some counties have had to do little to comply with the new law, while others have to set up an enforcement program from scratch.

Anne Arundel fell somewhere in the middle: The county has inspectors who work in the Critical Area and formal procedures for violations. But the county had to clarify its administrative enforcement to match the state's law, which has tougher penalties and more fines

Talbot County, for example, already has a program in place that's similar to what Mr. Leopold proposed.

Critical Area violators in Talbot are issued an "administrative abatement order" that explains what the property owner needs to do to comply with the law.

If the property owner wants to challenge the order, he can go to Talbot's Board of Appeals and eventually the Circuit Court. And if the property owner agrees to follow the order, but doesn't follow through, Talbot County can take the case to court to force action.

Implementing the changes in Anne Arundel have caused bureaucratic headaches for administrators, troubles exacerbated by the failure of the local bill in the face of protestors two weeks ago.

"This is not something that we're taking lightly," said Betty Dixon, director of the county Department of Inspections and Permits, adding that she has daily conversations with the Office of Law about how to fix the details.

Mr. Leopold said tougher and consistent enforcement of all environmental rules are what will make a difference in saving the bay.

"I'm not concerned only with the next two or four years, but the next 40 years," he said.

What's next?

Ultimately, county officials agree a new county law they're working on would be the simplest way to implement state requirements, but Mr. Redmond's group is poised to fight any initiative that violates due process or weakens property rights.

"This group is saying we're going to oppose any new bureaucracy until they fix the current problems," Mr. Redmond said.

Some environmental advocates were taken aback by the intensity of the opposition to the bill, and how well the tactic worked.

The handful of environmentalists at the Aug. 4 meeting were dwarfed by the passionate opponents. The environmentalists are planning a stronger show of force when the issue comes before the County Council again.

"There is definitely very broad interest among our constituencies and throughout the county," Mr. Berres of the South River Federation said. "I imagine there will be a broad level of support out there to make sure the legislation goes through."

Chris Trumbauer, the new West/Rhode Riverkeeper, said he is convinced all sides will be better off once the legislation is passed.

"The sooner they get this ironed out, the better - just so it gives people a reference, so they know what the law is and how it gets enforced," he said. {Corrections:} {Status:}

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