- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2002

OCEAN CITY Erin Fitzsimmons nudged aside wind-swept reeds lining the edge of Isle of Wight Bay and pointed to a luxury condominium under construction a few paces from the water's edge.
"If we were in the rest of the state, you would not see something like that," said Miss Fitzsimmons, an Ocean City Council member who teaches environmental law at Salisbury University.
Ocean City has an ordinance prohibiting development within 10 feet of the high-tide waterline. But if the 25-unit condominium were on the Chesapeake Bay instead of the Isle of Wight Bay, state protections would push it back farther.
"They're in compliance with what we have," Miss Fitzsimmons said of the new condominiums. "The point is, what we have is inadequate."
Gov. Parris N. Glendening has sponsored legislation this year to extend critical-area law protections placed in 1984 on the Chesapeake Bay to the coastal-bays region, one of the fastest-growing areas in the state.
Maryland's five coastal bays Assawoman, Chincoteague, Isle of Wight, Newport and Sinepuxent stretch from the Delaware border to Virginia, separating the Eastern Shore barrier islands from the mainland.
The critical-area law limits construction within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay, with tighter restrictions within a 100-foot range. Environmental officials say the buffer reduces erosion and filters pollutants and nutrients from rainwater runoff.
The regulations apply all around the Chesapeake Bay, although they vary in severity depending on the current level of development in an area. For example, restrictions for construction along Baltimore's harbor are different from those in rural areas.
In intensely developed areas, the law requires new construction to incorporate measures to prevent runoff, such as putting in storm-water drains and planting vegetation to soak up pollutants and nutrients. That part of the law would affect redevelopment in Ocean City.
"It's been kind of a free-for-all down there in terms of the environment, and with this bill you would have to have some sensitivity to the environment," said Glendening spokesman Mike Morrill.
The more-restrictive provisions would apply largely to the mainland of Worcester County, which has greater room to develop.
The bays provide habitat to more than 300 species of waterfowl, songbirds and birds of prey, and is home to blue crabs, flounder and clams. The bays are also a recreational destination, with the county attracting 11 million visitors annually.
Expanding critical areas to include the coastal bays would cost the state about $394,000 next year, partly to help develop programs in Worcester County, Ocean City and the town of Berlin.
The legislation is before committees in the Senate and the House of Delegates.
Dave Blazer, executive director of the Coastal Bays Program, a nonprofit environmental group based in Berlin, says the critical-areas legislation is a proven and effective way to address the detrimental effects of runoff from agriculture and development.
The coastal bays themselves present problems unlike the Chesapeake. The bays are shallow, and the mouths leading to the Atlantic Ocean are slender, so it takes a long time for water to flush out. Mr. Blazer says it can take more than two months for the waters of the Chincoteague Bay to turn over.
"You're not flushing it, you're not diluting it out," he said. "When something comes into an area, it's going to stay 60 to 70 days, and the more that spills into the area, the more it's going to accumulate."
The bill does not find strong official support in the part of the state that would be affected. The critical-areas law is administered by the state Critical Area Commission, which can challenge local zoning decisions.
The Ocean City Council voted 4-3 to oppose the bill, with Miss Fitzsimmons as one of its supporters. Worcester County neither supports nor opposes the bill, but it does have several concerns, said county council President John Bloxom.
Mr. Bloxom says the council would prefer to stick to the county's zoning classifications. For example, the governor's bill calls for a 100-foot buffer on non-tidal streams within the watershed a provision that did not apply to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Protecting the non-tidal waterways is crucial to the coastal bays because they are shallow and it takes so long for the water to flush out, the Department of Natural Resources said. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is 64,000 square miles, while the coastal bays watershed is less than 200 square miles.
The Worcester County Council wants a 25-foot buffer for non-tidal waters in the coastal bays. Mr. Bloxom said the 100-foot buffer called for in the bill would cause development to be dispersed, rather than concentrated, because there are so many waterways.
Mr. Morrill said late last week that a compromise was in the works to set the buffers at somewhere between 25 and 100 feet.
Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, Somerset Republican, says the state is meddling in an issue that should be addressed locally, pointing out that the Chesapeake Bay program affects most of the state's counties, while this bill would affect just one.
Miss Fitzsimmons said the goal can get lost in a discussion of the legislation's technical provisions. Clean water is in everyone's best interest from environmentalists to developers, she said, gesturing toward Isle of Wight Bay.
"If that's sour in whatever way, people aren't going to want to sit there and drink a cocktail," she said. "They aren't going to want to go fishing."


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