Severn shoreline shearing sparks investigation

By E.B. Furgurson III,
August 24, 2014,0,2926056.story

Tree clearing on Chase Creek in Pines on Severn, on August 10, 2014. (Courtesy of Bob Whitcomb / HANDOUT / August 10, 2014)

The county Office of Law is investigating whether charges should be brought in the clear-cutting of a section of Critical Area shoreline on the Severn River.

The incident was reported to county officials by residents of the neighborhood, underscoring the crucial part citizens play in the enforcement of environmental laws.

"The county does not have an investigator roaming the waterways to look for violations," said County Councilman Chris Trumbauer, D-Annapolis, also a member of the state Critical Area Commission.

"Enforcement relies on local residents. It is up to them. If they see something they think is out of the ordinary or a violation, they should report it — that is the first step in the process."

After reports are received, a county inspector is sent to determine if there has been a violation.

That was the way things unfolded earlier this month at Pines on the Severn, when a citizen reported to the county and the police that all the trees and shrubs had been cut along the shore in front of a home off Chase Creek.

The shoreline is in the Critical Area, which affords special legal protection for land abutting waterways. And it is also community property. The Pines owns about a half-mile of shoreline along that section of Chase Creek.

Tree-cutting and grading in the Critical Area buffer, within 200 feet of a waterway, is illegal without a permit. A special forestry plan is usually required for tree removal.

On Aug. 6, a county inspector found grading and tree-cutting violations at the site. A stop-work order was issued and the case was referred to the county Office of Law.

County Attorney David Plymyer said the preliminary investigation was complete but further investigation was warranted because of the potential seriousness of the violation.

"The case could be referred for civil or criminal penalties," Plymyer said. "The most egregious cases can go to the state's attorney or the Attorney General's Office. We really make an attempt to take action in those cases as a deterrent."

The Capital is not naming the property owners because no charges have been filed in the case.

The alleged violation was reported to officials by members of the Pines on the Severn Improvement Association.

"I expect this (case) could have some legs. But I am not really free to talk about any of the details because of the ongoing investigation," said President Susan Canfield.

Critical Area Commission Executive Director Ren Serey said the individuals who made the report did the right thing.

"We get a lot of calls here from people who might think the Critical Area Commission is the place to call," Serey said. "Although a violation of a local Critical Area program is also a violation of state natural resources law, the local government is usually able to handle that. Calling the county is the thing to do."

Anne Arundel County spokeswoman Tracie Reynolds said "at least 95 percent of nonpermitted projects are reported to us from citizens."

The county law office currently has 62 cases classified as Critical Area issues at all levels of enforcement. Of those, 25 seem to be related to grading violations in the Critical Area buffer, within 200 feet of the shore, or the Critical Area itself, up to 1,000 feet from the water.

None have been referred to the state's attorney for criminal prosecution in the past year, said Lori Blair, supervising county attorney.

"We have had several cases over the last year in which MDE (the Maryland Department of the Environment) has had some involvement or been made aware of violations," Blair said.

Many become civil cases and go to the District Court. A dozen Critical Area cases were adjudicated in the past four months, most of them dealing with building illegally in the Critical Area.

"It is important that people know they have a place to call and something will be done," Serey said. "And we encourage them to do so."

Anne Arundel County has a 24-hour hotline to report environmental and Critical Area violations, including removing vegetation and grading without a permit. To report a suspected violation, call the hotline at 410-222-7777 .


(Revised August 24, 2014)