A Calvert County circuit judge has overturned the Southern Maryland county's decision to exempt the proposed Cove Point liquefied natural gas export facility from local zoning regulations. It's not clear, however, whether the decision affects plans for the $3.4 billion project.
Judge James P. Salmon declared that Calvert County acted illegally in freeing Cove Point, now the site of a liquefied natural gas import terminal, from having to comply with the county's zoning ordinance. In doing so, the judge said, county officials violated Maryland's constitution by treating Dominion, the Virginia-based energy company that owns the site, differently from other property owners.
The Accokeek, Mattawoman and Piscataway Creeks Community Council had gone to court challenging the county's action last fall as a "special law" to fast-track the project. The regional council represents about 30 Calvert households opposed to Dominion's proposal to convert its import terminal to liquefy and export gas, said Kelly Canavan, the group's president.
Canavan and other opponents hailed the judge's decision. Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said it confirms critics' claims that Dominion and elected officials were "cutting dangerous corners" to advance the project. He predicted that the ruling would delay construction.
Karl R. Neddenien, a Dominion spokesman, said company officials were reviewing the decision but didn't see it affecting plans to start construction by year's end.
The project awaits a decision from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but a staff environmental assessment found no significant hurdles, despite opponents' calls for closer review of safety risks to surrounding residents. The Maryland Public Service Commission has given its approval, as has the state Board of Public Works.
John B. Norris III, the attorney for Calvert County, said it's not clear yet what, if any, additional permits or reviews the project might need to undergo if the judge's ruling stands. He said county officials exempted the project — as they did the nearby Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant — because they didn't feel qualified to regulate it.
"This is a very technical development proposal," the county attorney added. "If we were trying to impose traditional land-use requirements like we would on a warehouse development, it could jeopardize technical decisions by other reviewers."
But Canavan said that in trying to exempt the project, county officials were "shirking their responsibility to take care of their residents."