A year ago, developer Goodwin "Goody" Taylor was about to get away with ecological mayhem, with the approval of federal and state environmental agencies.
In 1986 he had purchased an option on the Riddle Farm, a lovely peninsula with nearly a thousand acres of farm and forest across Isle of Wight Bay from Ocean City.
There he planned to construct golf courses, a marina and several hundred homes, mainly along the waterfront and the golfing greens.
He cleared a major hurdle in 1988 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed that a mere 10 acres was officially in nontidal wetlands, a no-no for development.
Never mind that a child could see more wet acres than that; that many environmental experts thought there might be 200 to 300 acres of wetlands; that even the corps conceded that its original wetlands classification stunk.
But in the interests of "fairness, and the equity of the [developer]," the corps would let its original low-ball estimate stand, the agency told concerned citizens last year.
From that flawed decision, others seemed about to flow.
State environmental agencies acquiesced in the corps decision, and prepared to give final approval for a 12- to 14-acre marina, to be dug from the shoreline along quiet, shallow, Turville Creek.
The resulting excavation and dredging would officially impact mostly uplands; but from the standpoint of the tidal creek's health, the damage would include ecologically critical wetlands.
A year later, much has changed-- enough that it is Mr. Taylor who is beginning to cry foul.
Pressured by the Friends of Herring and Turville Creek Inc., a group of Worcester County residents, Maryland environmental officials have negotiated the developer up to accepting 132 acres as wetlands to be avoided, instead of the original 10 acres. Mr. Taylor has also, according to his lawyer, Bob Douglas, agreed to reconfigure his development to leave more forest intact, to limit boat use at the marina and to handle sewage and storm water in more environmentally acceptable ways.
It is not altruism, Mr. Douglas says, so much as it is good business; a high-quality environment will be a major marketing premise for the development.
Also, Mr. Taylor is increasingly squeezed by time and money, and can ill afford to provoke more delays by environmental agencies, or the citizens, who have made it clear they are willing to take the matter to court if necessary.
He has, he says, invested $4 million in planning and getting permits since 1986; and his option on the property -- he does not own it -- carries penalty payments if he lags too long in getting under way.
But critics say Mr. Taylor's concessions do little to address the fact that Herring Creek is a lousy place to site a major marina, with its attendant dredging.
The lovely, forested waterway is mostly less than a few feet deep at low tide, a place best suited for canoes and kayaks, catamarans and small outboards, says Frank Gunion, chairman of the Friends.
Several federal environmental agencies seem to agree, citing the fragile condition of the entire Maryland coastal bay ecosystem into which the creek drains. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent recent months battling the Army Corps permit for the marina, going to the top levels of the agencies' respective departments -- Interior and Defense -- before being overruled.
Most recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reconsidering its earlier acceptance of the marina. Unlike Fish and Wildlife, the EPA can, if it chooses, veto the corps permit, though such an option is only one of many available. The EPA notes that new evidence has come to light that the marina could affect an important nursery for flounder and other fish.
The agency also cites a recent study by a respected University of Maryland scientist hired by the Friends organization.
The study suggests that the state's Department of the Environment erred in 1991, when it ruled that the marina would not degrade water quality.
Finally, concerns are now being raised by citizens and federal agencies that even more wetlands exist on the Riddle Farm, and should be mapped.
Mr. Douglas says it is all more than his client should have to bear; Mr. Taylor has played by the rules but is the victim of changing legal protection for wetlands, bureaucratic disputes and increasing awareness of the fragility of the local bays.
Mr. Douglas has a point, though I confess it is not one I'm comfortable with. If Worcester County and the state had anything resembling comprehensive, enforceable land-use planning, and a program to protect the coastal bays, it is unlikely that a place like Riddle Farm would have been open to such a level of development in the first place.
If the Army Corps in 1988 had cared more about wetlands and less about the developer's short-term equity, his long-term equity would have been better served. And if federal agencies had a less fragmented approach to protecting wetlands than the current, jury-rigged Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act, much delay could have been avoided. Those and other "ifs" aside, what is fair regarding Riddle Farm?
It is just this kind of protracted regulatory action that fuels the current property rights backlash to environmental protection in Maryland and across the nation. It is a vicious cycle: The backlash prevents rational discussion in legislatures and Congress of better ways to protect wetlands and guide development away from forests and farms.
On the other hand, I have to applaud the Friends for investing countless hours and thousands of their own dollars to stand up for a quality environment. All the expertise of the corps and Maryland's departments of environment and natural resources are no substitute for citizens who give a damn.
As for the EPA and Fish and Wildlife, I want them to be zealous and protective of nature, even if the cumulative impact of their actions is sometimes messy under current rules and procedures.
It seems possible that all the parties concerned about Riddle Farm may be in a position to squeeze the developer into giving up, perhaps with a major financial loss. If it really comes down to no alternative but a development that will ruin the ecological integrity of one of the areas best remaining natural portions, I'd have to say, squeeze away.
Another possibility has been quietly under discussion for some time -- to assemble private and public money to keep the tract in nature and agriculture.
Mr. Douglas says $10 million would "make [Mr. Taylor] whole" and purchase the land. (That amount is negotiable, one may assume.) A buyout might be the best solution; but the larger issues remain. It is neither affordable nor desirable to buy up every threatened landscape.
We must learn to develop with the least possible impact on our region's remaining natural resources; but so far, Riddle Farm is a lesson in how not to do it.