County continues to crack down on illegal building

By ERIN COX , Staff Writer

Amid an aggressive effort to curb illegal building, the County Council passed a bill last night that would halt construction scofflaws in their tracks.

The unanimously approved bill allows the county to refuse new building permits to applicants who have already violated the law.

"It came to our attention that we are in a bit of a conundrum, if you will," said County Councilman Cathy Vitale, R-Severna Park.

If a builder unlawfully digs holes or clears trees in environmentally sensitive areas, for example, the county could not deny the builder a permit to construct a home there. The new law, which will go into effect as soon as County Executive John R. Leopold signs the bill, allows the county to stop the building process until the damage is repaired.

Although she cited no specific examples within the county, Ms. Vitale mentioned a case in Prince George's County where a homeowner in the environmentally sensitive Critical Area leveled the ground and built a terraced grass lawn to the shoreline. The landscape could not be restored once a house was built on top of it, she said.

The bill, co-introduced by Ms. Vitale, Jamie Benoit, D-Piney Orchard, and Josh Cohen, D-Annapolis, comes after another measure passed two weeks ago implementing $500 daily fines for homes, piers, sheds or decks built without proper permits.

Earlier this month, a state bill presented by the county's delegation strengthened prosecution for violations of the state's Critical Areas laws by extending the statue of limitations.

And also this month, the county filed a lawsuit against prominent south county businessman Steuart Chaney, alleging a half-dozen building violations at his sprawling marina Herrington Harbour South.

The crackdown on illegal building stems largely from the case of Daryl Wagner, an Annapolis builder who constructed a stately home, complete with a lighthouse and in-ground pool, on a small island in the Magothy River. Although Mr. Wagner built the home on Little Dobbins Island prior to gaining the proper permits, the county ultimately allowed him to keep much of the house in an appellate decision last year.

Litigation in that case is expected to wind its way through courts for years.

Meanwhile, heightened interest has spawned reforms in the building process and the series of actions by the council.

Other business

The council also delayed a vote that could remove about 23 acres in Arnold from Critical Area protection.

A judge ordered the county to remove about 2 acres near Whitehall Creek in Arnold because mappers mistakenly included the property in the Critical Area 20 years ago. The ruling declared that the county's mapping process erroneously included property.

Correcting the mapping error also would pull 21 other nearby acres out the Critical Areas. Council members agreed to wait until Ms. Vitale consulted with the Critical Areas Commission to find a solution without removing as much property from the area.

The bill will return for a vote on May 7.

"We're setting up, to me, what is a very dangerous precedent," Mr. Benoit said at a workshop about the bill last week.

Also last night, Mr. Leopold had a bill introduced to tighten the county's noise ordinance. Currently, noise violations rely on a police officer hearing the sound and deciding it is too loud.

Mr. Leopold's bill adopts state standards of decibel levels. If passed, Mr. Leopold said he would include $2,000 to $5,000 in the county budget to buy a sound meter to enforce the rules.

"Many people have witnessed loud noise," Mr. Leopold said. "But constant, repetitive, loud noise is not only unhealthy, it's annoying."

Amid an aggressive effort to curb illegal building, the County Council passed a bill last night that would halt construction scofflaws in their tracks.

The unanimously approved bill allows the county to refuse new building permits to applicants who have already violated the law.

"It came to our attention that we are in a bit of a conundrum, if you will," said County Councilman Cathy Vitale, R-Severna Park.

If a builder unlawfully digs holes or clears trees in environmentally sensitive areas, for example, the county could not deny the builder a permit to construct a home there. The new law, which will go into effect as soon as County Executive John R. Leopold signs the bill, allows the county to stop the building process until the damage is repaired.

Although she cited no specific examples within the county, Ms. Vitale mentioned a case in Prince George's County where a homeowner in the environmentally sensitive Critical Area leveled the ground and built a terraced grass lawn to the shoreline. The landscape could not be restored once a house was built on top of it, she said.

The bill, co-introduced by Ms. Vitale, Jamie Benoit, D-Piney Orchard, and Josh Cohen, D-Annapolis, comes after another measure passed two weeks ago implementing $500 daily fines for homes, piers, sheds or decks built without proper permits.

Earlier this month, a state bill presented by the county's delegation strengthened prosecution for violations of the state's Critical Areas laws by extending the statue of limitations.

And also this month, the county filed a lawsuit against prominent south county businessman Steuart Chaney, alleging a half-dozen building violations at his sprawling marina Herrington Harbour South.

The crackdown on illegal building stems largely from the case of Daryl Wagner, an Annapolis builder who constructed a stately home, complete with a lighthouse and in-ground pool, on a small island in the Magothy River. Although Mr. Wagner built the home on Little Dobbins Island prior to gaining the proper permits, the county ultimately allowed him to keep much of the house in an appellate decision last year.

Litigation in that case is expected to wind its way through courts for years.

Meanwhile, heightened interest has spawned reforms in the building process and the series of actions by the council.

Other business

The council also delayed a vote that could remove about 23 acres in Arnold from Critical Area protection.

A judge ordered the county to remove about 2 acres near Whitehall Creek in Arnold because mappers mistakenly included the property in the Critical Area 20 years ago. The ruling declared that the county's mapping process erroneously included property.

Correcting the mapping error also would pull 21 other nearby acres out the Critical Areas. Council members agreed to wait until Ms. Vitale consulted with the Critical Areas Commission to find a solution without removing as much property from the area.

The bill will return for a vote on May 7.

"We're setting up, to me, what is a very dangerous precedent," Mr. Benoit said at a workshop about the bill last week.

Also last night, Mr. Leopold had a bill introduced to tighten the county's noise ordinance. Currently, noise violations rely on a police officer hearing the sound and deciding it is too loud.

Mr. Leopold's bill adopts state standards of decibel levels. If passed, Mr. Leopold said he would include $2,000 to $5,000 in the county budget to buy a sound meter to enforce the rules.

"Many people have witnessed loud noise," Mr. Leopold said. "But constant, repetitive, loud noise is not only unhealthy, it's annoying."

Published April 17, 2007, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

(Revised April 2007)