Critical Areas Changes May Apply Here

ANNAPOLIS – Sweeping changes in the state’s critical areas laws approved by the General Assembly last week could have implications in Worcester, but the intent of bill is directed more to other coastal areas of the state where existing laws are always adhered to.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, state lawmakers passed a stringent Critical Areas law to regulate development within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay. Included in the law was a provision creating a 100-foot buffer in which no new development could occur. Five years ago, Worcester followed suit with its own legislation for critical areas along the coastlines in the county that borrowed liberally from the state’s existing law, but was tailored to the unique conditions in the county.

State lawmakers last week approved a bill that, among other things, would expand the buffer from 100 feet to 200 feet in many cases. The 100-foot buffer was controversial when Worcester passed its own critical areas law five years ago and expanding it to 200 feet will likely cause some heartburn for local waterfront property owners and the building community, but county officials this week downplayed the change.

According to Worcester County Development Review and Permitting Director Ed Tudor, the change to 200 feet would only apply on properties that are seeking growth allocation or are intended to be subdivided. Under the existing critical areas law, waterfront properties are segregated into three broad categories and the expanded buffer would apply if a property owner is seeking to move his or her waterfront land from one category to the other, or if the property is intended to be subdivided into multiple lots.

Another important component of the bill passed by the Assembly last week increases the enforcement mechanisms at the disposal of the Critical Areas Commission and other regulatory agencies. However, Tudor said the enhanced enforcement efforts should not be a big issue in Worcester where planning officials are already well aware of the restrictions spelled out in local and state laws.

“We already respond to those things on a daily basis and every project or development that crosses our desks, whether it be the Planning Commission or the Board of Zoning Appeals, is carefully scrutinized to ensure the law is being adhered to,” he said. “A lot of this is driven by other jurisdictions that don’t have the same level of scrutiny we have here. We’ve been somewhat proactive here, which diminishes the impact of this new legislation.”