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News Opinion Editorial

The return of the Four Seasons

The Four Seasons at Kent Island may be viewed as many things, but surely one of them is a reality check for all the complaints of state government usurping control over land use decisions from local government (not mention all the harping on Maryland as an anti-growth state or a developer's worst nightmare).

On Wednesday, the state Board of Public Works will once again take up the topic of the Four Seasons, a project that in 2007 came to symbolize the lack of teeth in Maryland's efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay from excess development in the "critical" areas near the bay and its tidal tributaries. And the project appears only slightly improved, and downsized, from its first incarnation.

We believe that Gov. Martin O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp should not grant the tidal wetlands permit the New Jersey-based developer is seeking to build the Four Seasons, which at 1,079 units would be the largest housing development effort constructed in the 1,000-foot critical areas buffer. That's because, as the project's opponents have already noted, the amended development plans have not been sufficiently reviewed by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Much has changed since 2007 (including state and local laws governing waterfront development), and a project of this magnitude deserves appropriate scrutiny — and an opportunity for a public hearing. That's what the law requires, and we see no reason why the board should relax its standards for this particular project.

The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed with the developer and vacated the board's original denial of the permit six years ago (on a 2-1 vote with Ms. Kopp approving it) because the board looked at the development's impact too broadly. But that doesn't mean the board must now approve it, only that it confine itself to the permit's requirements.

Surely, Governor O'Malley and Comptroller Franchot will want to know all the facts are in before they face the possibility of reversing their previous votes. MDE ought to be looking beyond the narrow issue of a sewer line and a pier on the property and consider changes in the development plan and the law since 2007. Too much is at stake to do otherwise.

That the Four Seasons project has come back to haunt the Board of Public Works demonstrates, once again, that Maryland's efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay have fallen short. Ultimately, development decisions rest largely in the hands of local government and, in this case, the Queen Anne's County commissioners who backed the Four Seasons project.

Unfortunately, bad land use decisions have consequences beyond county lines. That's the nature of pollution. Maryland taxpayers should not have to underwrite these poor choices by helping finance roads, schools and other public infrastructure to accommodate sprawl, all so that the state's most valuable natural resource can be made worse for future generations.

That's what "smart growth" laws were supposed to protect against, but they, too, seem to lack teeth. The land where the Four Seasons is intended — a site north of U.S. 50 (near the McDonald's for those familiar with Kent Island) is designated for growth by Queen Anne's County.

Mr. O'Malley has made protecting the Chesapeake Bay a high priority of his administration, so it is somewhat ironic that the Four Seasons may yet go forward. Will any of the environmental laws passed during his two terms — from changes to the critical areas to more recent restrictions on use of septic systems in new developments — make much difference? At least on some symbolic level, the reappearance of the Four Seasons yields a disheartening answer.

What's needed is greater accountability. Building a huge development on environmentally sensitive land on a low-lying island at a time of rising sea levels and global warming doesn't seem to put much "smart" in smart growth. Is this really the best that Maryland can do?

Recent assessments suggest Maryland and other states in the 64,000-square-mile watershed have made some modest progress in restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay. But how the region handles anticipated population growth will likely define the estuary's future. If land already defined as "critical" can't be protected, there's little hope that the progress will continue.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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