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Troubled waters need protection


THE PICTURE in the book shows hundreds of people frolicking at the Fort Smallwood public beach in northern Anne Arundel County.

Beach-goers sit on the sandy shore, stroll along a wooden pier and wade in the water.

The photo, taken in 1931, is from "Anne Arundel County: A Pictorial History," by The Sun's Jacques Kelly. You won't find these scenes in northern Arundel anymore.

The water and the beaches aren't what they used to be. Today's challenge is to prevent water conditions from getting worse.

Development and pollution turned waters from clear to cloudy along the county's extensive shoreline long ago.

Glorious memories

Back in the day, Sterling Perry Seay had fun swimming in the Chesapeake Bay off Highland Beach, where she spent summers as a child. She still enjoys the waterfront view from the former vacation cottage, which now is her year-round home. And she walks along the grass-and-sand beach.

"In the winter we have swans, and in the summer we have fishing and crabbing. And I've found arrowheads on the beach," she said before leaving and returning with four stone arrowheads that probably were left by Native Americans when the land was pristine.

But Ms. Seay doesn't swim at Highland Beach anymore. It's hard for her husband, Keith Seay, to believe anyone ever did.

Swimming never crossed my mind when I looked at the shore last week. The brown water didn't draw comparisons to the Florida Keys or the azure Caribbean.

But the bay is special.

The scene at Highland Beach was captivating, in spite of its dirty water. Perhaps I was attracted by the thought that it was hallowed ground -- abolitionist Frederick Douglass vacationed there. The community was founded in 1893 as a resort for African-Americans who were denied service at nearby white retreats.

But it's more than that. The water itself has charm, even in its imperfect hue. The waves rolling gently onto the sandy shore on a gorgeous spring afternoon created an idyllic setting. The beach is serene, romantic. And the water appeared bluer as I looked farther out toward large cargo ships and the Bay Bridge.

This scene, no doubt, repeats itself up and down the east side of Anne Arundel County.

Magic of water

In northern Arundel -- not far from the Fort Smallwood beach of yesteryear -- is the 57-acre, 450-townhouse community of Stoney Beach. Upon visiting the community, I was surprised. This sterile neighborhood was built -- and is thriving -- although it is near the gigantic Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. cooling towers.

But Stoney Beach is on the water, and the magnetic power of water neutralizes industrial towers.

If people had known in 1931 what we know now, would we have permitted water quality to go down the drain? Imagine Anne Arundel County as an Ocean City of the east. Or better, the Outer Banks of the north. A public beach paradise.

The county has 533 miles of shoreline -- more than any county in the country -- but you'll never see much of it. A good deal is on private property, where "No Trespassing" signs will turn you back.

Those who don't own waterfront property have some places to enjoy the bay, such as Downs Memorial Park near Gibson Island. But those familiar with exclusive Gibson Island know it is useless to go there -- unless you live there or are visiting. You won't get farther than the guard station unless you make a quick trip to the Gibson Island post office.

A legal obligation

Waterfront property owners have an obligation to protect Arundel's waterways. It's not just a moral obligation; it's a legal one.

The Maryland General Assembly adopted the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Act in 1984, requiring every jurisdiction to adopt a program to protect areas within 1,000 feet of shoreline. Because Anne Arundel County has so much shoreline, its program is crucial to the bay's health. Seventeen percent of the county is within the Chesapeake Bay critical area.

The Anne Arundel County Council is considering legislation that would correct technical flaws in a bill it passed two years ago and toughen it. The proposed measure would make it more difficult for homeowners to obtain a variance from the critical area law's restrictions. The county also would increase the amount of fines for violating critical area laws from $50 to $500 for the first violation and $1,000 for subsequent violations. And the standard for successfully prosecuting violators would be lowered: from guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" to "clear and convincing evidence."

These changes are needed because property owners in buffer areas sometimes clear trees in front of their homes to get a better view of the water. Trees help to protect the water from pollutants.

County Executive Janet S. Owens says her new budget proposal provides funding for the new law.

The power of water didn't lure Keith Seay to Highland Beach. For him, it's a good investment. "It's the kind of place my wife and I would enjoy retiring to," he says.

It's a safe bet, though, that he'll enjoy retirement more if the water outside his home were cleaner.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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