Baltimore County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins said Tuesday that she is withdrawing a proposed bill that would have exempted waterfront restaurants and marinas from some environmental requirements, following criticism from residents and environmental advocates.
The bill would have allowed restaurants and marinas in Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas in the county to add new structures up to the water’s edge, exempting them from laws requiring a vegetation buffer to separate certain developments from bodies of water.
In a statement, Bevins said Tuesday that after discussions with the county executive’s office and others, she felt that the bill was “a step too aggressive,” so she decided to withdraw it.
“The intent of this legislation was never to allow sprawling development in our Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas, but rather to make some tweaks to allow for businesses to enhance their atmosphere through the addition of palm trees, picnic tables, and other minor amenities,” wrote Bevins, adding that she hopes conversations on the matter can continue.
Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, is not running for reelection, so she will be leaving office when her term ends in December.
Erica Palmisano, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, said Tuesday that the office appreciated the withdrawal of the bill.
“We look forward to working with the Council and community members to explore ways to support our businesses while also protecting environmentally sensitive areas,” Palmisano wrote in a statement.
The Maryland Attorney General’s Office had reviewed the bill following a request from Democratic state Del. Dana Stein of Baltimore County and found there was a “significant possibility” that it conflicted with state law, according to a letter from assistant attorney general Kathryn M. Rowe dated Aug. 18. Rowe said she was “unable to give a definitive answer,” however, because under the state’s Critical Area Act — enacted in 1984 — the state’s Critical Area Commission is supposed to decide whether plans from local jurisdictions mesh with state law.
During Tuesday’s County Council meeting, the council’s chairman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, took issue with the attorney general’s handling of the bill. He said that he heard about the office’s letter only from constituents emailing his office, rather than from the attorney general’s office itself.
“If the attorney general wants to weigh in on something we’re doing, we would urge him to send the proper information to us so that we can evaluate it and accept it — as opposed to coming from third- and fourth- and fifth-hand,” Jones said.
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Although Bevins’ statement withdrawing the bill became public before Tuesday’s meeting, Jones allowed county residents to testify about the bill. But then, he read Bevins’ statement aloud, saying he had been unaware of it.
Bevins was absent from Tuesday’s meeting, but Tom Bostwick, the council’s legislative counsel, presented the bill on her behalf. He said the requirements for critical areas have caused frustration among some county residents who visit other jurisdictions in Maryland, such as Ocean City, and see plenty of businesses operating right along the water’s edge. Some have the perception that Baltimore County faces an unfair set of rules, Bostwick said, though some developments could have been “grandfathered in” to the current laws.
Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican and a member of the state’s Critical Area Commission, said he was hopeful that conversations about how to help businesses frustrated by the law will continue.
“You do hear complaints from some of the businesses in the Middle River area that they can’t get, for example, approval to erect a cabana on a cement bulkhead,” Marks said. “I think there’s some frustration, and I’m always wanting to think we can work things through.”
Brian Hall, owner of the Old Bay Marina in Edgemere, was the lone resident to speak in favor of the bill during Tuesday’s meeting, saying that the boating industry is in need of support and that lifting the buffer requirement could help.
Lindsay Crone of Middle River was one of two residents to speak against the bill Tuesday, calling it an example of “the death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach to eroding the health of our bay.”
“These policies are based on 100-year rain events that we’re now experiencing every few years, if not yearly,” Crone said. “But instead, our County Council is looking for ways to strip yet another layer of protection from our bay. And for what? To fill the pockets of a few restaurant owners.”