Pier Variance Challenge Advances

WEST OCEAN CITY — A challenge to a variance for a 190-foot pier over private and state-owned wetlands in West Ocean City was allowed to continue this week when a Worcester County Circuit Court judge denied a motion to dismiss the petition.

In November, the Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) filed a petition for judicial review in Worcester County Circuit Court to appeal a BZA decision to grant a variance for the construction of a 190-foot elevated walkway over private and state-owned wetlands adjacent to Old Bridge Rd. in West Ocean City. In October, the BZA granted an Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area variance for the project prompting ACT to challenge the ruling citing a dangerous precedent it could set.

The property owner, through his attorney, promptly filed a motion to dismiss the petition for judicial review for lack of standing. However, on Tuesday, a Worcester County Circuit Court judge denied the motion to dismiss, essentially ruling the challenge has merit and allowing it to proceed to judicial review. A hearing has been set for April 16 in Circuit Court to review the challenge.

ACT challenged the BZA ruling allowing the variance of the construction of the pier and walkway over the wetlands. Essentially, ACT is asserting the BZA overstepped its bounds in terms of the Critical Area variance.

“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, essentially taking the teeth out of state and local critical areas laws.

“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.”