Busloads expected to oppose Critical Area plan

By ERIN COX, Staff Writer
The Capital, August 03, 2008

Protesters plan to bring busloads of people to the County Council chambers tomorrow night to oppose stiffer rules and penalties aimed at curbing illegal building in environmentally sensitive areas near the Chesapeake Bay.

Opponents of the proposed penalties say they strip property rights from residents, create unnecessary expense for simple projects like building a deck, and give too much control to county bureaucrats.

"There are too many things wrong with the county to give them this much power," said Thomas Redmond, a Pasadena business owner and former county councilman. He said he and other business organizations plan to rent buses to bring fellow opponents of the law to talk to the council.

County Executive John R. Leopold had the tighter enforcement code introduced last month in order to implement new state laws requiring counties to create an enforcement policy. But several of the provisions go beyond state law, and those have irked people like Mr. Redmond.

If passed, people who live within 1,000 feet of the shoreline must hire a home improvement contractor to complete jobs like decks or sheds. If any project is built without the proper permits or in violation of the state's complicated Critical Area Laws, the property owner must tear down the structure or admit guilt before finding a way to leave the structure standing.

The more stringent laws also would impose time limits, the possibility of additional fines, and require the property owner to report the identities of contractors who performed work without proper permits. Those contractors could have their licenses revoked.

Under current law, people who own land in the critical area - the first 1,000 feet land bordering the bay and its tributaries - had been able to build first and get permission later without penalties. That practice would be eliminated except for infractions deemed "minor" by the county's director of inspections and permits.

Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer helped draft the proposed changes and says that while "there are certainly provisions that go beyond the strict requirements of state law," Anne Arundel's 530 miles of shoreline and the high pressure of development make the provisions necessary to effectively protect the critical area.

The county found 705 violation of critical area laws in 2007, and 361 violations so far this year - instances where property owners illegally dug up trees, destroyed shorelines or built buildings either without permission or with a greater scope than allowed.

Mr. Plymyer said one of the greatest challenges to enforcing the critical area laws is communicating the complex law to residents.

"A lot of the problem with the Critical Area Law, a situation that the county can do nothing about, is the complexity of the law."

Susan Stroud, director of government affairs for the Maryland Homebuilders Association, said her group has not taken a position against the new laws, but it is concerned about residents unwittingly becoming tangled in environmental violations and facing thousands of dollars in fines.

"The lions' share of violations are moms and pops who want to put in a shed, or tear down a tree," Ms. Stroud said, adding it's a bad idea "for them to be put in a position of having to admit guilt, which I think is a violation of due process."

The council will have a hearing on the bill during its meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Arundel Center, 44 Calvert Street in Annapolis.

(Revised August 2008)