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Four Seasons decision delayed

Board seeks assurances that developer's promises will be kept

By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

8:48 PM EDT, July 24, 2013

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After a marathon hearing on a proposed 1,079-unit housing development on Kent Island, the state Board of Public Works decided Wednesday to delay a decision for at least a month while Queen Anne's County officials seek assurances that the company will keep its commitments.

Led by Gov. Martin O'Malley, the board agreed not to vote on a permit to allow developer K. Hovnanian to install a sewer line and build a pier for its Four Seasons project until the company puts its promises to reduce the impact of the construction in writing.

"I would appreciate something more than just 'Scout's honor,' " said Comptroller Peter Franchot.

The decision to delay came after a more than six-hour meeting, much of it devoted to the question of whether to allow the project on the Chester River just north of U.S. 50.

The board's three members — O'Malley, Franchot and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, all Democrats — expressed opposition to such a large development in the environmentally sensitive "critical area" near the Chesapeake Bay. But their options were limited by a Court of Appeals decision last year.

The court ruled that the board exceeded its authority when it rejected a permit for the project in 2007 on the grounds that it would have a damaging effect on the bay. The judges bounced the decision back to the board, telling members they could consider only the narrow question of whether issuing the permit would damage wetlands in the area.

State environmental officials say it would not.

"The project meets all of the regulatory requirements," state Secretary of the Environment Robert M. Summers told the board Wednesday. He said that while he would never advocate locating such a project in a critical area, he could not say the development would have any more negative impact than keeping the land in agriculture.

Opponents of the proposed development tried to expand the debate, arguing, among other things, that the project would be vulnerable to rising sea level and storm surge and would compound Kent Island's problems with evacuation in an emergency.

Charles Schaller, a lawyer for Hovnanian, told the board the developer has scaled back the project from the 1,350 units proposed in 2007 to minimize the impact on wetlands. He promised that the developer would donate a 131-acre parcel in the original plan to the county for use as parkland, eliminate a proposed bridge to that parcel and make changes to its stormwater plan to negate its impact on wetlands.

O'Malley expressed concern that lack of a written contract could lead to a "bait and switch" under some future owner. He suggested that the matter be postponed until next month's meeting — or longer if the county and developer need more time.

While the board did not explicitly require it, Franchot suggested that the county hold new public hearings.

Advocates on both sides expressed ambivalence about the result.

"We're going into extra innings," said Gene M. Ransom III, a former Democratic county commissioner who testified against the project.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com