Court Review Sought Over West OC Pier Variance

WEST OCEAN CITY — A local environmental advocacy group is challenging an October ruling by the Worcester County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to grant a variance for a 190-foot pier over private and state-owned wetlands in West Ocean City.
Last Friday, the Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) filed a Petition For Judicial Review in the Worcester County Circuit Court to appeal the October BZA decision on an Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area variance granted for the construction of a 190-foot elevated walkway across private and state owned wetlands adjacent to Old Bridge Road in West Ocean City.
“The BZA, in its written opinion, has failed to meet the criteria mandated by law in the granting of a Critical Area variance,” said ACT Executive Director and Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips. “This variance sets a dangerous precedent not only for further impacts to this beautiful and still vibrant marsh that is now surrounded on three sides by development, but the language in the BZA Findings of Fact on this particular case could threaten the remaining wetlands and marshes within the Critical Area throughout Worcester County with greater development.”
The BZA has the authority to grant variances from state and county critical areas laws if certain criteria are met. However, attorney Robin Cockey, who is representing ACT in the case, said the county board did not meet the standard when it granted the variance.
“This case just doesn’t meet the standards for a variance,” he said. “If the rationale in this case were applied generally, everybody’d get a variance, everybody’d build a long pier, and the law would become meaningless.”
ACT does not argue against a property owner’s riparian rights, according to a prepared statement. However, all agencies involved have stretched the limits in order to grant approval of permits that should not be granted under the law. Further, it requires Maryland Dept. of Environment (MDE) and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) to conduct periodic inspections for three years to assure the conditions of the permit are followed, adding to the burden on MDE and local authorities.
Phillips said the impacted wetlands are not suited for the proposed construction.
“It says a lot about the environmental impacts of allowing motorized boat traffic to this waterway, which is simply a mudflat at low tide and where boating isn’t feasible anyways,” she said.
In addition, the property in question is currently on the market through an exclusive online auction for $4.9 million. During the Aug. 16, Shoreline Commission hearing, Phillips testified in opposition to the application, noting that such a luxury property will certainly invite the attempted mooring of a boat too large for the waterway and could cause channelizing of the ditch due to unintentional prop dredging.  Concerns raised at the hearing that MDE and ACE lack the resources to monitor this project were deflected by the commission, which commented that Coastkeeper could monitor the site.
“The commission has a mandate to protect the environmental and navigational interests of our local waterways,” said Phillips. “While Assateague Coastal Trust works hard to supplement those efforts, citizen groups like ours are not intended to bear that whole burden. This is reflective of why we have these legal standards, how this variance violates Worcester County zoning law, and why BZA or the courts need to step in to make this right.”