Law of the Land: Maryland General Assembly works to restore weakened Critical Areas Act

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 31, 2004

Shortly after Tropical Storm Isabel’s floodwaters hit the Chesapeake Bay shoreline last fall, carrying away chunks of waterfront land and destroying vast sums of bay-side investments, the Maryland Court of Appeals relaxed key provisions of a 20-year-old law restricting development within 1,000 feet of the water (“Time and Tide,” Oct. 22). Backers of the Critical Areas Act of 1984 assaulted the court’s opinion and argued that the law had slowed the pace of coastal construction for nearly a generation, and thus, by constraining new development where storms exact the heaviest tolls, had prevented further losses from Isabel. But the judges’ blow to the law, coming from the state’s highest court, was final. The job of straightening its spine now falls to members of the Maryland General Assembly, who are now attempting to trump the court’s move with legislation to restore the law to its original ecologically protective intent.

The Critical Areas Act, which bans new construction within a 100-foot buffer zone closest to bay waters and curtails it in specified areas within a 1,000-foot strip, is overseen by the state Critical Areas Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays. The commission’s chairman, former Republican state Sen. Martin Madden, was sworn in less than a year ago and immediately alerted lawmakers of his hope to firm up the act’s enforcement provisions. Then came Lewis v. Department of Natural Resources, a case before the high court in which Edwin Lewis, an apparel-industry executive, belatedly sought permission to build a hunting lodge and cabins on a tidewater hummock he owns in Wicomico County. By the time Lewis had applied in 2000 for a county variance to build on his site, which is in the critical-areas buffer zone, construction had already started.

The seven-member court’s 4-3 decision relieved Lewis, and therefore other landowners in the critical areas, of the burden to prove that their proposed building projects won’t harm the bay. Instead, local governments now have to show that such projects would harm the bay. That’s a tall order for governments to fill, say Madden and others who criticized the court ruling. Asking cash-strapped counties to prove the harm caused by each proposed project in the critical areas, Madden says, would effectively undermine the law’s intended goal of protecting the shoreline from damaging development. To make matters worse, the decision condoned Lewis’ course of action: build first, seek permission later, then claim the remedy–the removal of illegally built structures–is an undue hardship.

“The ruling turned everything on its ear,” says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the 1,000 Friends of Maryland, a nonprofit coalition that advocates environmentally sound growth. “Twenty years ago, when the law passed, we said, ‘We all agreed that we’re going to protect this fragile shoreline,’ but now we have to come back and re-establish the intent of the law. I find that extraordinary.”

In the decision’s aftermath, Madden, like the many homeowners repairing post-Isabel wreckage, set about patching up the court’s blows to the Critical Areas Act. He has been working his persuasive magic on his former colleagues in the state legislature, and his efforts appear to be paying off: The legislation, introduced this session, is moving through the General Assembly process at a brisk pace with little controversy or fanfare.

“The main bill basically brings us back to where we were prior to Lewis,” Madden says. It clarifies the law’s overall intent to protect the bay and plugs the holes shot through the law by the Lewis decision. It also increases penalties–from the existing maximum of $500, to a proposed $10,000–for violations. And it gives local governments the option of asking the state Critical Areas Commission to handle tough enforcement cases. The measure was supported by a broad array of interests–everyone from realtors and builders to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Maryland Association of Counties–and passed, 41-6, in the Senate on March 22. The House will consider the bill after a hearing scheduled for April 2.

“It was agreed by everyone that we needed to go back” to the law’s pre-Lewis strength, says lobbyist Bill Castelli, of the Maryland Association of Realtors. “[But] everybody needed to get comfortable that the bill wouldn’t go beyond that.”

A comfortable consensus was reached, Castelli adds, after a few, minor clarifying amendments were added. Still, he points out a cautionary note about future litigation over a restored Critical Areas Act: “You just can’t predict what will and won’t get challenged in court.”

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