Guest column: Who has the right to protect the Magothy River?

By Kim Coble
Maryland Gazette

The Dobbins Island case embodies more than just building a home, or a pier. It's about the quality of the Magothy River, the health of the crabs, fish and grasses within it, and about the Bay's future.

This week, Anne Arundel County's Board of Appeals decided that neither the Chesapeake Bay Foundation nor the Magothy River Association had the right to challenge its decision to allow construction of a pier, driveway, well and septic system on the Magothy River's Dobbins Island, one of the last vacant islands in Maryland.

The county said the organizations do not have the right to challenge because they do not own property on the river. It was not enough that 58 of our members own property on the river, or that the organizations have spent considerable efforts to restore the river. We still have no right to question the county's actions on the river.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Magothy River Association argued their right to protect investments in the river, including underwater bay grasses and oyster reefs the organizations built with their hands, sweat, and funds. The organizations' key point is that the county's decision to allow construction of a house, driveway, pier and septic system on an island with steep slopes will produce harmful runoff, damaging these oyster reefs and bay grasses.

Anne Arundel County said that, despite our extensive work and hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment, our interests were no different than the average citizen and called our efforts to protect those essential oyster reefs and bay grasses, "big brother at its worst."

If the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Magothy River Association don't have the right to appear in court and challenge decisions we believe will be harmful to the quality of the Magothy River, then who CAN protect the river and its natural resources?

Anne Arundel County's Board of Appeals believes no one has that right. Their decision to limit that right to anyone living within 175 feet of these islands results in no one being able to challenge the county's decisions.

This is a bad decision for not only the Magothy but for all of Anne Arundel's waters. Little Dobbins Island, right next to the bigger Dobbins, is another example of county decisions that will hurt the Magothy.

With Little Dobbins, we saw a "build first, seek variances later" approach. A developer built a home, lighthouse, pool, boat ramp, driveway, and gazebo, and removed acres of protective trees and shrubs that reduced pollution and erosion - all without the necessary permits and variances. The county allowed the structures to stand, and decided that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Magothy River Association did not have the right to challenge this damaging development.

On Dobbins Island, the county allowed one pier to be built, extending from the island to a length that will kill about 1,600 square feet of flourishing bay grasses - a rare sight in the bay today.

Underwater grasses play a critical role in supporting water quality of rivers and the Bay. Essential bay grasses have dwindled from their abundant numbers, and the Bay and its rivers have less than 40 percent of the grasses they used to have. We should not allow actions that result in losing more underwater grasses.

Anne Arundel County's trend seems to be to issue one permit after another, allowing construction that is harmful to our rivers and bay, without any regard to the grasses, oysters, crabs, and the rest of the bay's bounty. At the same time, the county seeks to block all voices of opposition to such development, even from groups that are spending thousands of hours and millions of dollars to improve county waters.

Citizens and organizations are working tirelessly to restore our rivers and Bay in order to make the Chesapeake Bay a resource they can enjoy and leave to their children in better shape than they found it. Without the ability to protect their efforts, citizens and organizations will start to question whether their efforts are worth it.

The County Board of Appeals' decision to tell the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Magothy River Association that they cannot challenge the county's decision to allow harmful construction - to silence their desire to protect investments in the Bay and its rivers - has larger consequences.

If these organizations - and the tens of thousands of voices and Bay resources they represent - are not allowed to speak for the Bay and the rivers, who can?

Kim Coble is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland executive director.
Published 08/04/07 Maryland Gazette, Glen Burnie, Md.

(Revised August 2007)