A proposed 1,079-unit housing development on the Chesapeake Bay is headed to the State House for another round in an environmental fight that has dragged on since the 1990s.
A proposed1,079-unit housing development on the Chesapeake Bay is headed to the State House for another round in an environmental fight that has dragged on since the 1990s.
The developer of the proposed Four Seasons project on Kent Island has twice gone to the state Board of Public Works seeking approval of a wetlands permit — and twice has been rebuffed. The permit is back on the board's agenda for Wednesday, but the makeup of the panel is different from the onethat blocked the project in 2007 and 2013.
The three-member board is now headed by Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who has made it his mission to expedite the issuance of permits for businesses. It previously was headed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who regarded the proposed development as an environmental calamity.
Critics say the project would pollute local wetlands and does not belong in a "critical area" bordering the Chesapeake.
Jay Falstad, an activist who has fought the proposal for a decade, says it would develop one of the last unspoiled tracts on the island north of U.S. 50, a site featuring fields and woods and wildlife. Travelers passing through on the highway might think the island has been fully developed, but Falstad insists that isn't so.
"If you get off onto the side roads, there's still some parcels left, and this is one of the last ones," he said.
But K. Hovnanian, a New Jersey-based homebuilder, says the project would bring jobs to Queen Anne's County and that any environmental disruption would be limited.
John H. Zink, a lawyer for Hovnanian, said the project meets all state criteria for issuance of the permit and has been approved by the Critical Areas Commission.
"Four Seasons will bring significant economic benefits to Queen Anne's County and to the region," Zink said in a statement.
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford is expected to chair Wednesday's meeting as Hogan attends the Republican Governors Association annual meeting in Las Vegas. If Rutherford backs the development on behalf of the administration, it would take the votes of both state Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp to block the permit. The governor's office declined to say how Rutherford would vote.
Franchot, who has consistently opposed the project since it first came before the board eight years ago, continues to have reservations, a spokesman said. Kopp could not be reached for comment but has taken a more narrow view than Franchotof the board's power to make policy decisions.
Falstad says he will be there armed with a report by the state's wetlands administrator, which says that the stormwater system the developer is proposing would carry pollutants into tidal wetlands, including pathogens, excess nutrients, metals, pesticides, fertilizers, oil and grease.
Such pollutants "will not be 100 percent removed" by the project's stormwater system, wetlands administrator Bill Morgante states in the report. "It is my conclusion as a professional wetlands scientist that discharge from the applicant's proposed stormwater system will flow directly to the tidal wetlands."
Nevertheless, Morgante determined that those impacts mean only that a license is required, and he has recommended that the permit be issued.
The Maryland Department of the Environment also recommends that the board approve the project, the same position it took under O'Malley. According to spokesman Mark Shaffer, the department believes "any impact to the tidal wetlands complies with the wetlands statutes and regulations."
Falstad, executive director of the Queen Anne's Conservation Association, rejected those conclusions.
"Given the wetlands administrator's report, it's hard to imagine how anyone at the BPW could believe this project is in the economic interests of the state," he said.
Falstad said the developer has substantially redesigned the stormwater management system since the last time Four Seasons came before the board and that independent experts have not been given time to evaluate the plan.
"We don't believe the matter is ripe for Board of Public Works review," he said.
The Four Seasons project has had a contentious history since the first application for a wetlands dredging license was filed in 1999 by Hovnanian.
The project has been opposed by a coalition of nearby residents, environmentalists and other local activists. But it has won the approval of the Queen Anne's County commissioners.
After a long period of review and public hearings, it first came to the Board of Public Works for a vote in 2007, when O'Malley and Franchot voted it down on environmental grounds. Kopp dissented, saying the developer had followed the rules on the books.
Hovnanian turned to the courts and in 2012 won a victory in the Court of Appeals, which ruled that the board exceeded its authority by considering the broad impact of the project rather than the narrow question of how the dredging and filling would affect the wetlands.
The matter returned to the board in 2013 as Hovnanian brought a modified version of its proposal to the state. Amid allegations of a too-cozy relationship between the developer's lawyer and the previous wetlands administrator, the board deferred action.
The developer went back to court. This time, Hovnanian lost as the state's high court ruled this year that there was no evidence the board was dragging its feet. But the decision sent the matter back to the panel and evaluation by the new wetlands administrator, Morgante.
Jack Broderick, a Kent Island resident who has been fighting the project since it was proposed, said he understands that the board must make its determination on the wetlands impact alone. But Broderick, who plans to be at the meeting, says that should be enough to block the permit.
"The wetlands will be irreparably harmed by putting that development up there," he said.