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Judge approves controversial dredging

Crownsville neighbors fighting over Fox Creek

By PAMELA WOOD, Published 07/24/09

In the lengthy war over dredging a small Crownsville creek, the latest battle goes to the pro-dredging homeowners.

A county Circuit Court judge ruled last week that the state properly issued a permit to dredge Fox Creek on the Severn River, also called Old Place Creek.

Homeowners who oppose the dredging challenged the permit in court, even though most of the work already has been completed.

It's just the latest twist in the dredging case, which dates back to Christmas Eve in 2002, when homeowners first applied for their dredging permits.

The case has sparked intense passion in both the pro-dredging and anti-dredging camps, and led to tense meetings, allegations of wrongdoing and tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills.

Curt Fisher, one of the leaders of the group seeking dredging approval, said he was happy with the ruling by Circuit Court Judge Philip T. Caroom.

"We're really pleased with the decision and we're committed to protecting the creek," Fisher said.

He's not ready to declare victory just yet - he knows an appeal is possible.

Janet Clauson, the most vocal dredging opponent and one of the legal challengers, said there's no decision yet on an appeal.

The creek that has inspired the fight over dredging is a small waterway with a narrow opening to the Severn River. Some say it's more of a tidal pond than a true creek.

Fox Creek flows between the neighborhoods of Herald Harbor and Long Point on the Severn. While parts of the creek are deep, there are shallow spots on either side of its entrance.

A group of homeowners, mostly on the Long Point side of the creek, sought dredging to create a deeper channel through the shallow spots. They agreed to do the work with their own money.

They said the increased depth would allow easier boating access and allow water to flow more freely, therefore improving water quality.

Opponents worried about increased boat traffic and said the dredging would ruin vital underwater grass beds.

It took the state six years to sort through the pros and cons of the case.

The Maryland Department of the Environment initially approved the dredging, but then later reversed the decision.

When it came time for the state Board of Public Works to review the case - the board has final say over what happens in Maryland's waterways - the board's wetlands expert came down in favor of dredging. Ultimately, the three-member board voted in December to grant the permit.

Normally dredging is not allowed in such shallow waters, but there are a handful of exceptions. In this case, Fox Creek won approval on the basis that there was boating activity in the creek before 1972.

Opponents felt the evidence of historic boating, including an old photo and boating guides, was flimsy.

Fisher, the dredging advocate, hopes to put the dredging drama behind him. With the permit in hand, the contractors completed most of the work this past winter.

He said the creek is now less stagnant and has more fish. His group will have to have water oxygen levels tested as a condition of getting approval for future maintenance dredging of the channel.

"It's great. The water flow is excellent. We've got more fish than ever," he said.

(Revised July2009)