One of County Executive Robert R. Neall's most eagerl awaited and important environmental initiatives is the revision of Anne Arundel's "critical areas" program, part of a statewide mandate to protect a 1,000-foot buffer along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
With 432 miles of shoreline -- among the bay's most highly developed -- Anne Arundel County should have been leading the way in restricting development in sensitive waterfront areas. Yet the county's critical areas program, in place since 1988, has been so lenient that the state Critical Areas Commission itself has said it fails to live up to the intent of Maryland's law.
The county has liberally grandfathered projects begun before the critical areas program went into effect as long as owners comply with the act "insofar as possible." This vague condition has been interpreted loosely, so that developers have been exempted from prohibitions against building within 100 feet of high tide or within 25 feet of wetlands.
The two most controversial developments grandfathered under critical areas law, Woods Landing II along the Little Magothy River and Back Bay Beach on the West River, have survived challenges before the courts as well as the county Board of Appeals.
At Woods Landing, that means 153 townhouses may be built 50 feet closer to the shore than the state would otherwise allow, 10 percent more of the site may be paved and four times as many trees may be cut down. At Back Bay Beach, 71 homes will be built on a site that, according to the county's own critical areas map, is covered with non-tidal wetlands -- specifically protected under Arundel's own program.
Had Mr. Neall wanted to show real environmental vision and knowing that the local critical areas program must be changed anyway, he could have spent less effort defending the county's loose environmental policy in court and more time trying to figure a way to make developers comply with the spirit of the state law.
Now, he has another opportunity to show he is an environmental leader rather than merely a caretaker of the environment. In drafting his new critical areas legislation, due next month, he can do just enough to satisfy the state. Or he can set the standard for other counties to follow.