The Maryland Board of Public Works approved an environmental permit Wednesday for a long-disputed Kent Island housing development after a top state wetlands official said the project would pollute less than the farms now there.
By a 2-1 vote, the board approved a permit needed for the proposed 1,079-unit Four Seasons subdivision on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
New Jersey homebuilder K. Hovnanian's two previous efforts to gain a permit for its stormwater system had been thwarted in 2007 and 2013 under Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The board approved the project even though state wetlands administrator Bill Morgante said it would produce significant runoff, including pathogens, excess nutrients, metals, pesticides, fertilizers, oil and grease.
In recommending approval of the permit, Morgante told the board the Four Seasons stormwater system would result in less pollution than the farmland that now makes up half of the 562-acre site. The site, he said, is not a pristine forest.
"The bottom line is, agriculture contributes more pollution than stormwater," Morgante said. "It is my opinion that the stormwater management system is not sufficiently adverse to deny a license."
"This is the oddest testimony I've heard in over 30 years," said Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who cast the dissenting vote.
A coalition of local residents and environmentalists has been fighting the project since the developer filed for the permit in 1999.
The change of administration this year proved critical as Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford — filling in for a traveling Gov. Larry Hogan — cast one of the votes in favor of the permit.
Rutherford, a Republican, was joined by state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, a Democrat. She said that while she did not like the project, the developer had fulfilled all of the legal requirements. She predicted that the matter would end up in court, and opponents of the project said they expect to file a lawsuit seeking to block it.
The board voted after a contentious hearing at which Franchot quizzed Morgante to the point that Rutherford admonished the comptroller for having "browbeaten" the wetlands official.
"This is a vote for sprawl in a completely inappropriate area," Franchot said. "This is just a complete disgrace, what we're doing right now."
Jeffrey H. Horstman, deputy director for the Miles-Wye Riverkeeper, questioned Morgante's assertion that the nitrogen and phosphorus from farmland on the site would outstrip pollution from the housing development. By that logic, he said, the Western Shore would have the cleanest water in the state because it is intensely developed.
Horstman said Morgante's conclusion overestimates the effectiveness of the project's planned stormwater retention ponds.
The Morning Sun
"It's going to flood with rain and it's going to flood with storm surge. The ponds are going to overflow into the river," he said.
But Charles Schaller, a lawyer for K. Hovnanian, insisted that the company had met its regulatory and legal requirements.
"K. Hovnanian has done everything it's been asked to by the government," he said.
The board's action does not mean Hovnanian will be able to break ground soon. Jay Falstad, executive director of the Queen Anne's Conservation Association, said his organization and others would take the issue to court. Twice before, disputes involving the Four Seasons project were fought all the way to Maryland's highest court, taking years to reach a resolution.
Franchot, whose vote was a departure from his recent alliance with Hogan on many issues before the board, pointed to one potential avenue for a legal challenge as he pressed for a new round of public hearings on the project. The last hearing, apart from those conducted before the board, was held in 2003.
The Maryland Department of the Environment contended that no new hearing was legally required because the developer had reduced the impact of the project since then. The department said requiring a developer to go through a new hearing process after reducing polluting effects would create a disincentive to making projects cleaner.