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Thousands of Variances Cut Into Maryland's Shoreline

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland, February 21, 2008 (ENS) – Maryland’s critical ribbon of shoreline, protected by law, is being fragmented by small developments – a walkway here, a deck there – that add up to environmental degradation, finds a new study by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. To stop these ongoing variances, the nonprofit group is calling for a rewrite of a state law called the Critical Area Act.

In 1984, the Maryland legislature passed the Critical Area Act to protect the strip of land along the state’s tidal waterways. This “critical area” buffers tidal creeks, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay, reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and sediment flowing from the land. When the law was passed, it was considered the centerpiece of Governor Harry Hughes’ effort to restore the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay.

The Act, amended in 2002 to include the Atlantic coastal bays, designated all land within 1,000 feet of tidal water as “critical,” and created a Critical Area Commission responsible for a series of protections that would never expire.

For the first time, the state would have a say in how land within 1,000 feet of the water’s edge would be used.

In 2007, Chesapeake Bay Foundation began a comprehensive study of the law’s effectiveness, consulting expert studies by the Abell Foundation and University of Maryland Law Clinic, and compiling primary data on four representative counties.

The study found that to date an average of 76 percent of landowner’s requests to vary from Critical Area protections were allowed in the four counties studied – Anne Arundel, Calvert, Kent, and Queen Anne’s counties.


Waterview of Annapolis from Eastport,
Maryland, February 2006. (Photo
by Diane Evartt courtesy
Maryland State Archives)

While many of these variances are not individually damaging to the watershed – a small extension to a deck, the addition of a walkway – the cumulative effect of these variances is destructive, CBF says.

“These variances are like death by a thousand cuts,” says Kim Coble, CBF Maryland executive director.

“An alarming amount of development, including additions, walkways, patios, and decks, as well as development on so-called grandfathered lots took place in the Critical Area between 1990 and 2000. Variance projects had significant, local impacts to the sensitive 100-foot buffer zone, precisely where the law is intended to restrict development the most,” the study states.

CBF estimates that between 1990 and 2000, over 6,000 acres of Critical Area land have been developed in the four counties specifically studied, more development than anyone imagined in 1984.

The Critical Area Commission has had some successes. In October 2006, the commission denied an application to build a golf course, hotel, conference center, and retail center in the critical area upstream from the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland.

“We at CBF would like to thank all the citizens who have fought this process over the last few years, and the 27,000 citizens who signed our petition,” said CBF Maryland Executive Director Kim Coble at the time. “Your efforts have finally been rewarded.”

Still, the CBF says, it is clear that the statute needs to be reformed. “The goals of the Critical Area Act have been secondary to those of private development, and that the 29 member Critical Area Commission has lacked the necessary authority to apply the law in keeping with its intent,” the report demonstrates.

The report also calls on Governor Martin O’Malley and the Maryland General Assembly to reform the Critical Area Act to ensure consistent application of the law; provide more robust and equitable enforcement of the law; correct Critical Area boundaries to reflect current conditions;

The foundation says an update of the variance and grandfathering procedures is needed to minimize natural resource and water quality impacts; and ensure that development in the Critical Area is consistent with Maryland’s Smart Growth policies.

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