Responding to complaints that the proposed revision to the critical areas law unnecessarily goes beyond state standards, the County Council has amended the bill to reduce the buffer around nontidal wetlands from 50 feet to 25 feet.
The amendment, introduced by Councilwoman Diane Evans and supported by members David G. Boschert, George Bachman and Carl Holland, was approved at Monday night's meeting. Council members Edward Middlebrooks, Maureen Lamb and Virginia Clagett voted against the amendment.
The lower standard did not please county officials or environmentalists, but both said it did not significantly weaken a bill that County Executive Robert R. Neall said would make Anne Arundel's critical areas regulations "unsurpassed" in the state.
The revised bill, which will come up for a public hearing at the council's Aug. 2 meeting, still exceeds the state critical areas standards in nine provisions.
These include a 50-foot buffer from the top of a bank and a review of any development within a quarter-mile of a nesting site to protect the birds and their habitat.
"I don't think it's fatal [to the bill] at all. The bill is fairly broad-sweeping," said Thomas C. Andrews, who heads the county's environment and land-use division. "The county's postion is that a 50-foot setback is more protective environmentally than the 25 feet. We just consider an extra 25 feet as an extra measure of protection for that resource."
"We're not brokenhearted or wringing our hands, but we're disappointed with Diane Evans," said James R. Martin Jr., president of the Severn River Association. "It was purely an opportunistic move on her part to placate her development cronies."
Ms. Evans said she had received many calls and letters since the bill was introduced, and the thread running through them was that "they felt the state standard [of a 25-foot setback] is sufficient."
Mr. Boschert said the amendment helps achieve a balance between environmental concerns and the rights of property owners, an important concern to him in the new law. "Why do we have to overkill anything?" he asked, referring to the stricter standards proposed by the county. "Let's protect the environment, but let's do it in a proper manner."
John Dodds, a developer who represents the Anne Arundel Trade Council in legislative matters, said the amendment helps, but he is still hoping the county will "grandfather" building projects that have already obtained some permit approvals.
"I'm not sure the county has a lot of leeway, but we think there is room for some grandfathering," Mr. Dodds said.
It was the grandfathering issue that got the county into trouble last month with the state Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission. On June 9, the state commission invalidated portions of the county program that allowed lots subdivided before 1985 to comply with the critical areas provisions "insofar as possible."
The state commission also ruled that the county could not exempt 24 subdivisions on the Broadneck Peninsula that had been on a list awaiting sewer service.
The state commission gave the county 90 days to correct the deficiencies, which are addressed in the new legislation. County officials said that as long as the bill is passed by the first week of September, it should meet the state commission's demands.
Mr. Boschert had threatened to introduce an amendment exempting building projects that had already constructed infrastructure, such as roads and sewers, but he held off at Monday's meeting. The amendment was aimed at two South County developments, West River Plantation and South Creek View.
Mr. Boschert said yesterday that he will wait to see whether the county approves the two developments before the Aug. 2 meeting before deciding to introduce the amendment.
Mr. Andrews said it appeared the projects would be approved. "Barring any other difficulties with them, the critical areas [law] shouldn't hold them up at this point," he said.