A proposal to build hundreds of waterfront homes and condos on Kent Island faced two decades of delays over concerns that it would disrupt fragile marshes. And now, less than five months after construction finally began, opponents say those fears are coming true.
Heavy rains washed a massive plume of dirt and sediment from the Four Seasons project into a Chester River creek earlier this month, officials said. Maryland’s top environmental regulator called the pollution “unacceptable” and said developer K. Hovnanian is facing potential fines and increased oversight as a result.
“We are focused on ensuring this doesn’t happen again,” said Ben Grumbles, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment.
But that is not calming critics, who have argued for years that such ecological impacts were inevitable, given the project’s scale and location. Concerned residents, former Gov. Martin O’Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot had long challenged K. Hovnanian’s proposal, calling it inappropriate for a once-rural island where concerns of sprawl have been building.
“They promised us that this would not happen,” Franchot said at this week’s meeting of the Board of Public Works, the state panel that repeatedly scrutinized the Four Seasons project after it first applied for permits in 1999.
Franchot called on Grumbles to maintain pressure on the developer: “I don’t want to be an obstructionist, but I also don’t want to let this go by.”
Residents of southern Kent Island have wanted a public sewer system for decades, tired of frequent flooding that stirs a stench in their backyards and threatens their groundwater and the fragile Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. But now that the state is chipping in $15 million to ensure that a sewer line is run down the largest island in the Chesapeake Bay, some are worried about another consequence: The sewer project could allow more than 600 new homes to be built on the low-lying land at the foot of
Hovnanian began building the Four Seasons at Kent Island project in October, with plans for single-family homes, condominiums, a clubhouse and indoor and outdoor pools. The Board of Public Works had approved its long-debated environmental permit in 2015, with the approval of Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration and despite Franchot’s objection.
It was an end to a saga during which the board twice rejected permit applications, in 2007 and 2013, and the developer’s appeals wound through county and state courts.
But the controversy was renewed when recent rainy weather systems brought a deluge to Kent Island. National Weather Service models suggest that 8-10 inches of rain have fallen on the island over the past two weeks, more than four times the normal amount for this time of year.
Residents quickly noticed the Macum Creek, a tributary that leads to the mouth of the Chester, was turning muddy and brown. Such sediment pollution is one of the biggest struggles in efforts to improve Chesapeake Bay health because it blocks sunlight from reaching underwater grasses, which provide important habitat for fish and crabs, and can coat oysters in mud.
State environmental regulators investigated and found that construction crews did not follow proper procedures for erecting erosion and sediment controls. They said that the developer’s measures were insufficient and used the wrong materials to effectively trap sediment from runoff. The crews also were using chemicals designed to encourage sediment to clump together, reducing runoff and erosion, but they had not obtained permission to do so, officials said.
In a statement, a Hovnanian representative said that the company “takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously, and we strive to both meet and, where possible, exceed expectations with respect to the standards required.”
“The recent rainstorm at Kent Island was of an extraordinary nature, with nearly 6.0 inches of rainfall in a 24-hour period, which exceeded the threshold required of us according to Maryland standards,” the statement added.
The company prepared for the storm as required, self-reported with state regulators and worked to remediate the situation, the company said.
Grumbles said the incident has raised questions about how regulations can and should reflect increasing precipitation and more extreme storms. Regulators expect to impose penalties to make an example of the Four Seasons project.
“Enforcement sends a powerful signal to the developer and to others that these types of events are unacceptable,” Grumbles said.
He said regulators are holding them accountable to a permit that governs stormwater runoff.
But Jay Falstad, a Kent Island resident and executive director of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association, is calling on the state to rescind the developer’s permit that allows it to build near tidal wetlands. The permit restricts sediment runoff and forbids construction activity during the winter, when migrating birds pass through, he said.
Falstad called for the “performance of all persons, companies and agencies involved in this sorry episode” to be scrutinized.