Residents who fought for six years to deepen the mouth of a Crownsville-area inlet for greater boating access finally will get to dredge 2 1/2 -foot channels into and out of Fox Creek.
The state Board of Public Works unanimously approved a wetlands license Monday after investigating why the Maryland Department of the Environment changed course in 2007 and decided not to allow the dredging of Fox Creek. Because it was the first time in the nearly 30-year history of the wetlands program that MDE had reversed itself, Board of Public Works staff decided to review the decision, said Doldon W. Moore Jr., BPW's wetlands administrator.
Moore recommended the dredging be allowed, which sent the dispute between two dozen neighbors to the state's highest officials. The three-member board is made up of the governor, state treasurer and comptroller.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said that dredging proponents had proved their point that Fox Creek was a navigable waterway and met state benchmarks for dredging. Still, he approved only a three-year license instead of the six-year one sought by Fox Creek Associates because he wanted water quality to be closely monitored.
"It's between the neighbors themselves whether the definition of quiet enjoyment is canoes or power boats," O'Malley said after the meeting.
Comptroller Peter Franchot sought to end any questions that might bring the issue back for another vote. If water quality tests show no problems, then a longer, six-year license would be granted. If water quality worsened, annual maintenance dredging would be halted.
The 18 residents who wanted the dredging, dubbed Fox Creek Associates on permit applications, will have to reimburse MDE for annual water quality tests. They said they were relieved by the compromise and would halt dredging if it caused problems.
"Everybody just wanted an answer one way or another," said Dru Burke, one of the residents who supported dredging.
MDE, which has 30 days to appeal the decision, will not appeal, said Dawn Stoltzfus, an agency spokeswoman. "It was a very close call whether the dredging would have been beneficial or not," she said. "The decision could have gone either way."
Bob Shaw and Janet Clauson, who own properties along the dredging area, said they were disappointed about the decision. They said the deeper channels will bring more saltwater and larger predatory fish from the Severn River.
"The whole point that we've tried to make is that the value of the creek is as a tidal pond," Clauson said. "As soon as you open it up, you change its value as a fish hatchery."
Shaw said that there was evidence that the underwater grasses were bouncing back in the creek. Dredging will upset the vegetation and disrupt the shallow sandy areas where fish lay eggs, he said.
"I thought that was what the state was supposed to do, protect the fisheries," said Shaw, who moved to Fox Creek in 1999.
It was around that time that the 100-plus-acre Kyle farm was subdivided and new homes were built along the creek. Construction brought new homes and piers along the waterfront.
Members of Fox Creek Associates applied for a dredging permit in 2002. The MDE initially approved the dredging in 2006 after Fox Creek Associates agreed to reduce the depth of the proposed channel from 5 feet to 3 feet and reduce the length and width. After public hearings, the MDE reversed its decision in 2007.
The issue hinged, according to state officials, on a regulation in the Maryland Tidal Wetlands Act of 1970 that would allow dredging along a historic navigable waterway, as long as it was at least 3 feet deep before 1972. That is when the state finished making maps of waterways.
Moore said that the channels leading into and out of the inlet will flush out Fox Creek and help restore oxygen levels and habitat. He said that saltwater effectively will be washed out as well.
The dredging, which will cost $25,000 to $35,000, can take place only between November and April before spawning and growing seasons. Curt Fisher, a dredging proponent, said it could take as little as a week to dredge.
Maxim Naftchi, another proponent, said he thought the decision was fair. He said sometimes he could not bring his sailboat home because he missed high tide.
"We're happy to monitor the condition of the creek," Naftchi said. "We're there to keep the water clean."