Coastal plan prompts worry; Proposal would seek no-build buffer along bay shores


OCEAN CITY -- The Maryland Coastal Bays Program unveiled a 120-page proposal yesterday that supporters say is a blueprint for conservation in the next century but that contains a proposal for a no-build shoreline buffer similar to restrictions on Chesapeake Bay waterfront property.

Supporters and detractors agree that the plan could affect watermen, developers, recreational boaters, sport fishermen, farmers and the tourist industry.

The management plan covers Assawoman, Isle of Wight, Sinepuxent and Chincoteague bays and smaller tributaries that make up a marshy, 175-square-mile watershed that is the incubator for a wide range of marine life -- and a significant part of Worcester County's $2-billion-a-year tourist industry.

Jack Burage, a Worcester County developer who is a member of the citizens advisory committee working on the coastal plan, said the details of creating a waterfront buffer might be the stickiest points in completing the plan.

"We had a deluge of ideas, a lot of excellent points were raised, and, hopefully, we can all live together," Burage said. "We are a long way from reaching any consensus on the buffer, but we have been able to meet halfway."

More than 200 people crammed Harrison's Harbor Watch restaurant yesterday to get a look at the first draft of the plan, which is set to be completed after a monthlong public comment period.

Enforcement of many of the provisions would be carried out by state agencies.

A contingent of about two dozen watermen, who fear new restrictions on crabbing or clamming could hurt their business, were among those concerned about how the plan's conservation goals will be reached.

A tentative proposal by Ocean City officials last month for a moratorium on taking hard-shelled clams from coastal bays has stirred fear among commercial fishermen, said Randall Burk, a waterman from Crisfield.

"There are a lot of rumors about closing the bays to all commercial activity," Burk said. "What we're worried about is that if enough groups like this go to Annapolis and say this is what their community wants, the state legislators are going to listen. A lot of these people don't have the facts. They don't see what we see every day at work."

A study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1996 that spurred interest in the coastal bays program showed that the shallow waterways in Maryland and Delaware were more damaged by farming and development than the Chesapeake Bay. Adding to concerns are projections that Worcester's population of 40,000 will double in the next 30 years.

The new proposal has four categories: water and sediment quality, fish and wildlife, recreation and navigation, and community and economic development.

The key challenge for more than 200 community volunteers and professionals from federal, state and local government agencies was to develop consensus, said Carolyn Cummins, chairwoman of the 44-member citizens advisory committee.

"Obviously, whenever you start talking about changing the way people do business, their first response is that 'it's going to cost me money,' " said Cummins, a convenience store operator. "But we have been at the same table for a long time, and there is agreement that we need to look at this in a comprehensive way."

Maryland's coastal bays program, one of five similar efforts funded by grants from the EPA, has operated on a $300,000-a-year budget since 1996. No cost estimate has been made for carrying out the wide-ranging program.

"It's really almost impossible to put a total dollar figure until we hear back from all the agencies that would be charged with implementing the plan, whether they'll need more staff, more funding or whatever," said Cummins. "A lot of the action plans during the first year can be done with existing resources."

Jeanne Lynch, chairwoman of the county commissioners, said: "When I look at the diverse interests represented here, it's obvious we've started something. I hope to God we can finish it. What's obvious is that there are too many people to continue going the way we have for the last 250 years."

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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