Saving the Bay, but not in a vacuum


Any attempt to relax environmental standards has to be viewed skeptically. The line against development must be held, or the day will come when there aren't bays, forests, marshes or meadows left, at least not as we know them.

So it's natural to look askance at Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary's proposal to make it easier for some homeowners in a rigidly protected 100-foot buffer along Chesapeake Bay to add on to their houses.

But Mr. Gary's idea makes sense because waterfront construction would become easier only in areas where development already has rendered tough regulations irrelevant.

There's little point, for example, in forbidding someone who lives near the Brandon Shores power plant -- which sits entirely within 100 feet of the bay -- from building a deck. The 100-foot buffer, part of the so-called "critical area" defined in a 1985 state law, has already been compromised along this stretch of shoreline.

After a careful mapping of Anne Arundel's 447 miles of shoreline, county officials have determined that about 160 miles have been developed to the point where the buffer simply isn't effective. Still, homeowners have had to go through a lengthy review, even if what they want to build doesn't face the water. This is a waste of county time and taxpayer money.

Under the proposed bill, homeowners whose property was subdivided before 1985 and who live where the 100-foot buffer has been deemed non-functioning would not have to seek a zoning variance for projects that do not come closer to the water than the existing structure. A variance requires a public hearing, so this is a significant reduction in bureaucratic red tape. The homeowners would not be exempt from other requirements within the critical area, such as planting trees or avoiding steep -- slopes.

It's a measure of the bill's reasonableness that environmentalists, who have gone to war over the critical areas law in the past, support it. Also, besides earmarking pieces of shoreline that have been developed past the point of no return, it identifies those sections that must be defended more vigorously.

The legislation may look disingenuous because it lets Mr. Gary simultaneously score a few points with property owners and environmentalists. But it's a good bill, and the County Council should treat it as such.

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