Crownsville neighbors spar over dredging

PAMELA WOOD
The Capital, November 04, 2008

Colleen Dugan - The Capital Homeowner Janet Clauson stands on her property at the narrow opening from the Severn River into Fox Creek in Crownsville. Several neighbors want to dredge channels on either side of the opening, but Ms. Clauson and some others are opposed. The state Board of Public Works will decide Nov. 19.

What would seem to be a simple question concerning dredging a small creek in Crownsville is proving complicated for the state's top three officials.

Whether to dredge Fox Creek off the Severn River has been the center of a community debate for six years. Now the decision lies with the state Board of Public Works, which is composed of the governor, comptroller and treasurer.

Complicating the matter is that experts from two state agencies are giving the board opposing advice. They're set to vote Nov. 19 on the proposal that has bounced around state agencies since 2002.

The Maryland Department of the Environment recommends against the dredging, while the Board of Public Works' adviser on dredging is in favor of it.

This is the first time in recent history - and possibly ever - that there have been conflicting opinions in a case like this, said Sheila McDonald, the board's executive secretary, who refereed a tense question-and-answer session for creek residents a few weeks ago.

For both sides, the board vote

represents a possible end to the long process, although legal appeals could follow the decision.

"We're hoping this thing ends soon," said Curt Fisher, a vocal supporter of dredging.

Mark Batson, another dredging proponent, added, "One thing's for sure. We'll never quit fighting because it's the right thing to do."

The proposal

Homeowners started discussing dredging in 1999 and eventually formed Fox Creek Associates and submitted an application in 2002 to dredge up silt that built up in the creek.

Fox Creek, a quiet creek with a narrow opening to the Severn River, sits between the neighborhoods of Herald Harbor and Long Point on the Severn.

The creek also is called Old Place Creek, and before that some say it was called Otter Pond. Some described the creek as more of a tidal pond than a true creek.

While parts of the creek are deep, there are shallow spots on either side of its entrance. Fox Creek Associates wants to dredge those shallow spots to create a channel that's 3 feet deep.

The group plans to pay for the dredging itself at a cost of $30,000 to $45,000. That amount is in addition to more than $50,000 already spent on engineering studies and legal bills.

The increased depth would allow easier boating access. Proponents also said it will allow more water to flow in and out of the creek to improve water quality.

But opponents worry about increased boat traffic and said the dredging will kill vital underwater grasses while doing nothing for water quality.

Janet Clauson, who owns a home at the mouth of the creek, said she likes the creek just as it is and opposes the dredging.

"It's a really special place," she said, standing on a small sandy beach at the inlet. "People come in and out with kayaks and canoes, small sailboats and small fishing boats."

The group in favor of the dredging, in turn, blames Ms. Clauson for some of the creek's problems. They say a cliff on her property sheds dirt into the Severn that then washes into the creek during rainstorms.

Ms. Clauson disputes that her property is the problem, but said she eventually plans to stabilize her land, perhaps with a "living shoreline" planted with marsh grasses and natural materials.

Back-and-forth

The Maryland Department of the Environment supported the dredging in 2006.

But after an outcry from opponents, the Board of Public Works staff asked MDE to take a second look. That extra review led MDE officials to reverse their decision in 2007.

But because of the size and scope of the project, the dredging needs final approval from the Board of Public Works, which has jurisdiction over major projects in state waters.

The Board of Public Works' wetlands administrator, Doldon Moore, reviewed the plans and came out in favor of the dredging this year.

MDE's back-and-forth and the conflicting opinions have caused many who live on the creek - both proponents and opponents - to scratch their heads.

During the meeting last week, few in the audience seemed satisfied with the answers they were getting.

At times, anger bubbled to the surface, as some shouted accusations at Mr. Moore and MDE's representative, Gary Setzer. "We had a deal!" Mr. Fisher said. "You shook my hand ... Suddenly you have this hearing which was unauthorized ... then you sat on it for a year and you changed it!"

The homeowners in favor of the dredging aren't the only ones confused and frustrated. Though more quietly, opponents whisper that they think something is amiss, too.

Boating history

Normally, the state does not allow dredging in areas that are less than 3 feet deep, unless the project meets one of several special criteria. In this case, the decision appears to hinge on whether there was boating in the creek before 1972.

MDE staff and Mr. Moore have pored over aerial photographs, surveys and boating guides to determine how much boating activity existed all those years ago, and whether it's enough to justify dredging.

Mr. Moore said there is "more than ample documentation" to support the dredging. He also said he is convinced water quality would be improved.

Mr. Setzer from MDE, however, said the concern over underwater grasses is too great to allow the dredging. And while he said there was boating before 1972, there's no solid documentation of the creek's depth.

Thick reports from both Mr. Moore and Mr. Setzer have been forwarded to the three members of the Board of Public Works for the Nov. 19 meeting.

Ms. Clauson and the applicants don't agree on much, but this much is certain: When the decision is handed down, she said, "Somebody's not going to be happy."

(Revised November 2008)