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In Worcester, endless variances Development damage: The Eastern Shore county has a beautiful master plan that protects the environment. The only problem is that regulators don't follow it.


LET'S BE CHARITABLE and say there's a chance Worcester County's homebuilders and developers are not the most churlish in the state.

Maybe they are just advertising their mean-spiritedness better there than anywhere else.

I refer to a 10-person task force appointed by the beach resort county's new commissioners in January with the ostensibly worthy goal of streamlining permitting processes.

The task force, virtually all developers and contractors, has turned it into an abusive witch hunt, chronicled by the local paper, Ocean City Today, and its reporter Dave Wilson Jr.

Planning and building permit staffers are hauled into public meetings, where developers who couldn't tell an environmentally sound project from a bomb crater openly bully those charged with regulating them.

If you wonder whether regulators have been unnecessarily strict on development, a ride around Worcester County will perish the thought.

Like so many counties, Worcester has a good-looking master plan that guides development compactly, preserves farmland and protects water quality and natural beauty.

Like so many counties, the reality is an endless series of exemptions, exceptions, rezonings and variances that has generated miles of ugly strip development and let housing sprawl needlessly across forest, farms and wetlands.

Additionally, the county takes a back seat to few in its willingness to adopt regulations more lax than state standards where possible -- forestland protection being a recent example.

And Worcester is mostly out of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, so restrictions on shoreline development that apply to the rest of Maryland are a joke there, despite extremely sensitive water quality in its coastal bays and tidal creeks.

How do you begin to change a situation like this?

Partly, as I've written before many times, you work from the top down, by putting teeth in current state land-use law.

But just as critical, you work from the grass roots up -- which brings me to Ron Cascio, 42, who manages housing construction in Worcester County for a living and is a bright spot that needs to be multiplied across the state.

Mr. Cascio, who traces his love of nature to growing up by a stream that ran through a 17-acre woodland off Edmondson Avenue in Catonsville, has lost considerable income in recent years.

But not from delays in building permits; rather, from volunteering countless hours to fight for more environmentally sensitive development of the Riddle Farm, a huge tract of woods and wetlands near Ocean City.

The effort met with limited success, saving substantial wetlands but not fundamentally changing the development; it left Mr. Cascio with a keen appreciation of how influence and money can bend environmental policies.

In early January, we discussed an interesting proposal by Larry Schweiger, a new vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Mr. Schweiger envisions a "Baykeepers Institute" that would, among other things, try to emulate the political success conservative Republicans have had in getting their people on local school boards across America. They have profoundly influenced local politics, and some have made it to Congress.

Mr. Schweiger thinks the foundation should similarly train and support the right people to influence local land planning boards throughout the bay region.

When we talked, Mr. Cascio said he was seriously considering burning Worcester County's comprehensive development plan on the courthouse steps "to show it's not worth the paper it's printed on."

But a few days later, he called to say that, coincidentally, he had just been appointed to Worcester's seven-member Planning Commission.

A registered Democrat, he was offered an unexpected vacancy by Jeanne Lynch, the only Republican among the five county commissioners and the only one truly knowledgeable about the need for better development (Mr. Cascio worked hard to re-elect her).

The post pays $25 a month, and will take, he thinks, 40 hours a month "to do right." He considers it "an honor."

I told Mr. Cascio I'd like to make this week's column a sort of baseline piece, from which to periodically revisit him; also, I hope, others like him who will move into local land-use processes that too often have been left to business-as-usual economic interests.

He is not naive about quick results, as one of seven members of a purely advisory board:

"If I can accomplish one thing help the public understand how much their whole economy is based on the quality of our waters and our watershed -- that would be something valuable, to make those connections before we get like parts of the Jersey shore," he says.

Indeed, the quality of our environment is the sum of millions of small decisions and individual actions. It's past time to get people in the land-use process who can champion, as Mr. Cascio does in his own life, living within limits, quality vs. quantity; and differentiate between consumption and satisfaction.

"I don't call myself an environmentalist," he says. "So many people of all ilks claim to be one, it confuses me.

"To me, it's pretty simple -- don't take any more than you need, love what you have and pass on the natural resources you were given to future generations."

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