Bills Aim To Strengthen Buffer Protection Law

BERLIN – Maryland’s Critical Area laws need to be strengthened, environmental organizations say, and two bills now in front of the Maryland General Assembly are designed to improve the buffer protection law.

“The laws are clearly not working as intended,” Jessi Bedell, a field organizer for Environment Maryland Research and Policy Center, said standing in front of Turville Creek this week.

Environment Maryland released a 20-page report this week called “Unprotected Shoreline: Failures in Limiting Development along the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays,” which reads in part, “With weak enforcement mechanisms, broad loopholes, and 64 separate jurisdictions implementing their own standards, the Critical Area Act has failed to stop many irresponsible developments that continue to threaten the health of the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries, and Maryland’s Atlantic coastal bays.”

The Critical Area laws, passed in 1984 for the Chesapeake Bay, and in 2002 for the Atlantic coastal bays, limit building within 1,000 feet of the bays and require a 100-foot wide buffer at the water’s edge where nothing can be built.

Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips, who received many calls from concerned citizens last summer over huge algae mats in the coastal bays and local creeks, pointed to a clump of algae in Turville Creek and said, “That’s why the critical area buffers are so important.”

Masses of algae indicate a high level of nutrients in the water, and those nutrients come off the land, she said. Buffers absorb nutrients before they reach creeks and bays.

The laws are enforced inconsistently by local jurisdictions, and Maryland courts have often upheld after-the-fact variances for major violations, Bedell said.

Local jurisdictions have limited resources to enforce the Critical Area laws and receive little state help to fund what they need, according to the report.

The original act, which the Coastal Bays Critical Areas law is modeled on, has some inconsistencies and vague language, Fisher said.

“This has resulted in high approval rates in requests to vary from the law. Over 75 percent of requests are granted on average around the state,” said Fisher.

Some property owners simply ignore the laws, according to the report. The owner of a hunting lodge in Wicomico County that had no Critical Area permits recently lost a seven-year legal fight. The structure must be torn down, but the coastal environment could take decades to recover, Bedell said.

House Bill 1251 and Senate Bill 844 could be a big step forward in remedying those loopholes and inconsistencies, Fisher said.

The two bills, introduced by Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration, tie growth approval and planning to local and state growth plans, call for bigger buffers and put regulatory authority into the hands of a central body, the Critical Area Commission. The legislation should also hold people accountable for violations and impose meaningful penalties.

The bills, said Phillips, “are a call to arms for everyone who likes to use these waters, and wants them to stay healthy.”

“If we keep it up, I’m sure we can have success in getting this through,” said Bedell.

“We’re very hopeful,” said Erik Fisher, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation planner, said. “It’s an administration bill. The administration is very interested in seeing it go through.”

The organizations called for public support.

“It’s really important that anyone who wants to see this strengthened, they need to contact their delegate. They need to write letters,” Phillips said. “Decisions are often made based on who is in front of them at that time.”