A pier decision in question

Opponents will face a hurdle in fighting an Anne Arundel ruling that allowed a dock to be built on Dobbins Island

By Phillip McGowan, Sun reporter
July 29, 2007

To the protectors of the Magothy River, the 200-foot-long pier jutting out from Dobbins Island is the equivalent of a finger poking them in the eye.

Island owner David L. Clickner Sr. recently constructed the pier for the boats he hopes to dock at the house he hopes to build.

Environmentalists are questioning why the state and Anne Arundel County would give Clickner permission to build a pier while they are appealing the zoning variances that allowed its construction.

"We thought it was irresponsible for construction to move forward when the [variances are] being challenged," said Beth Lefebvre, a spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It was contrary to the spirit and the letter of the laws that are meant to protect our critical areas."

But opponents of Clickner's plans have a hurdle to cross before they can argue their point before the county Board of Appeals.

Representatives for the Magothy River Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation may spend two days this week trying to prove that they have the legal standing to challenge Clickner's approvals.

In April, the board denied standing to the two groups in the case of Daryl C. Wagner, who was granted retroactive approvals late last year for a palatial home he built several years ago on nearby Little Island. The panel ruled that the parties were not aggrieved because they did not live within "sight and sound" of the building.

An attorney representing the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is bracing for a similar fate regarding Clickner.

"We're not optimistic," said Jon A. Mueller, the foundation's litigation director.

Despite what happens after the board's meetings Tuesday and Wednesday at the Arundel Center in Annapolis, Magothy River Association President Paul Spadaro said his organization will push ahead to secure private funding to buy the island from Clickner.

Spadaro said he's also prepared to fight Clickner through the courts to stop him from building on the 7-acre crescent in the Magothy River.

Clickner could not be reached for comment Friday.

Environmentalists have opposed Clickner's efforts to build a home, originally about 5,000 square feet, on Dobbins Island since he bought it for $825,000 in 2004. A county hearing officer rejected his request in 2005 because of environmental concerns of building within 1,000 feet of the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay, an area commonly known as a "critical area."

But that same official, Stephen M. LeGendre, reversed himself in October, granting Clickner variances to build a driveway, septic system, a pier and a home of indeterminate size, and the businessman got state and local approvals this spring to build the pier.

The environmentalists have said that construction on the island's numerous steep slopes would increase the rate of erosion on the island, potentially compromising habitat. Spadaro is leading an effort to turn the island into a park.

"If we allow development on Dobbins Island, ... we would be giving up the rights of the many for the rights of one," Spadaro said.

Environmentalists say the pier covers a bed of subaquatic vegetation that will die off without direct sunlight. The grasses provide habitat for fish and crab, filter pollution and prevent erosion. They also question the location of the pier because it runs out into a popular island anchorage.

County land-use spokeswoman Tracie Reynolds said that Clickner built the pier "at his own risk." She said if the Board of Appeals overturns the underlying variances, he will be forced to tear it down.

Julie A. Oberg, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said agency officials were unaware that the variances were being challenged during Clickner's pier license review. She said a department investigation of the pier site concluded that the structure wouldn't have a "direct impact on marshes, subaquatic vegetation or other living resources."

Clickner and Spadaro struck a truce this spring to delay hearings before the Board of Appeals, giving Spadaro until July to acquire funding to buy the island.

Spadaro said he has contacted land trusts and park services, and his intent is to make the island part of a water trail recognizing Capt. John Smith, who explored the Chesapeake Bay 400 years ago. President Bush signed legislation in December authorizing the creation of the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail.

However, Spadaro said he needs two to three years to line up the financial support.

"I am making progress, I am really making progress," he said. "But this kind of negotiation takes a considerable amount of time."

Spadaro called Clickner's decision to build the pier "disappointing," and said he hoped that it doesn't indicate he wants to build a house there.

In the meantime, the two environmental groups say they deserve a voice before the appeals board to oppose what they consider unacceptable building along the shores of the Chesapeake, if for no other reason than to protect their investments to improve the bay's health.

What's at stake, said Mueller, the bay foundation attorney, is years of efforts to plant oyster beds along Anne Arundel's shores. He said the foundation might lobby to change county and state laws to give environmental groups legal standing to oppose builders in the critical area. Or it may halt restoration efforts in the county.

"I think the county would want to embrace that," he said. "If we can't protect what's there, we will have to go somewhere else."


(Revised July 2007)