Rare beetle foiling residents' hopes to shore up crumbling Calvert cliffs

Baltimore Sun

With her house perched atop a 70-foot cliff overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, Marcia Seifert has a view you could die for. She's hoping it won't come to that. When Seifert and her housemate Phyllis Bonfield bought the place at Chesapeake Ranch Estates a decade ago, the cliff was 52 feet from their deck. Now it's only half as far away at best - and about 9 feet in one spot - as bits and chunks of their backyard have tumbled onto the beach below.

Their home and nearly a dozen others along this stretch of Calvert County shore are endangered by the crumbling cliffs - and by an extremely rare beetle that lives in them. Residents who own waterfront homes here say they knew about the eroding cliff, but not about the Puritan tiger beetles, which have severely limited what they can do to halt or slow the loss of their land.

"It would be funny if it weren't so absurd," said Seifert, 73, a retired teacher and insurance executive. "We were never told there was an endangered species along the cliff that would prevent us from protecting our homes."

Fearful that their homes could tumble over the edge in the next several years, she and other residents are pressing state and federal officials for some relief from the strictures of the laws protecting the beetles and their cliff habitat from disturbance.

A Senate committee in Annapolis is scheduled to hear testimony today on a bill that would push the state to allow "incidental" loss of some beetles if no alternative exists. A similar bill, sponsored by Del. Anthony O'Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican, unanimously passed the House last month.

"Some of these houses are within 8 feet of the edge of the cliff," O'Donnell said. "It's scary as hell, and they're losing chunks 8 to 12 feet at a time."

Seifert says it's a safety issue. She estimates that about 90 homes in Chesapeake Ranch Estates and 360 others along the Calvert shore are on cliffs that have been deemed beetle habitat. The bluffs, made up of sand and clay, can give way without warning - and did so with fatal consequences in 1996, burying a 12-year-old girl on the beach below. Last Thanksgiving, one cliff-top resident lost a backyard hot tub.

State and federal officials say they're eager to help the homeowners. But they say they must balance property owners' needs against the very particular needs of the beetles, which are found only along the Chesapeake Bay and the Connecticut River in New England.

"For these communities, it is a huge problem right now, we understand that," said Leopoldo Miranda-Castro, supervisor of the bay field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said his office has joined with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and other officials to come up with a plan for safeguarding cliff-top homes without pushing the beetles to extinction.

They're not far from that, according to scientists. In the bay, the beetles have been found only along a 2.4 mile stretch of cliff shore in Calvert and in the lower Sassafras River in Cecil County. Biologists tallied just over 2,000 last year along the Calvert cliffs, less than half the number found the year before. But their numbers fluctuate, so it's hard to tell if they're holding their own or declining. The beetle has been classified as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1990, and endangered under Maryland's parallel law.

The reason for the beetles' rarity may lie in their habits and habitat needs. They're found in the open in June and July, when they forage for food and mate on the beach. Then the females scale the bluff to lay eggs. Their larvae burrow into the sandy portion of the cliffs to feed for more than a year before emerging to repeat the cycle.

Chesapeake Ranch Estates and other waterfront communities along Calvert's bay shore were first planned and developed in the 1930s and '50s, before the county had zoning rules, according to Greg Bowen, director of planning and zoning. In 1984, the county began requiring new homes be at least 100 feet from the toe of the cliff, but some have been built closer because their owners signed waivers excusing the county from liability.

Seifert and others say they thought they'd be able to control the erosion. However, the usual methods of armoring the shore with boulders, known as riprap, or of building walls or revetments, would wipe out the beetles' habitat.

Federal and state regulators have let some property owners put boulders and concrete "reef balls" off their shoreline to break the wave action that undercuts the cliffs. Seifert said she and her housemate spent more than $75,000 to place a low rock wall along their 165-foot beachfront, and a neighbor paid for 40 feet of break-water.

But Seifert said her yard keeps disappearing in two places - on the side where her other neighbor chose not to do anything, and in the center, where her septic drain field had been until it slid down the cliff. She got approval to fill the sinkhole and try to stabilize it with vegetation, but the patch of ground is sinking again.

The problem is that the cliffs are eroding from the top as well as the bottom, with rain, snow and septic drainage seeping down through the topsoil to the layers of sand and clay, destabilizing them.

"If those guys [riprap] the cliffs and walk away and leave those houses there, those houses ... are going into the bay anyway," said Lauck Ward, a geologist at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

"The only thing that will stop the worry of homeowners is to have his house moved back to a common-sense place," Ward said. "At Calvert Cliffs, I'd want to be back at least 120 feet."

Residents and officials say many of the lots are too small to relocate the house and still have room for a well and septic system.

Seifert and others think it's time the government's concern for the beetles gives way to the need to safeguard people's safety and property.

"When it comes right down to it," she said, "this is not an issue between an endangered species, be it a tiger beetle or polar bear, and a property owner. This is an issue of fundamental constitutional rights. We're guaranteed by the Constitution to be able to own property and to protect it."

C. Barry Knisley, an entomologist who has studied the beetle since the 1980s, said he sympathizes with the homeowners.

"I can't defend the beetle in saying it's of great value," said the retired biology professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. But the beetle is an indicator of a rare type of shoreline that itself may be worth protecting, he says. And, he notes, people go to great lengths to preserve man-made works of art and wonders of the world. "I would argue in the same way that species should be given every chance to survive in their natural habitat."

In the wake of a town hall meeting in February, state, federal and local officials have pledged to meet every couple weeks to search for a solution. One idea would drive ultra-long steel pins or rods into the cliff to stabilize it. Any option will be expensive for the homeowner, however.

Knisley has another idea. "One solution, ... would be to buy these people out and let nature take its course," Knisley said. "Stabilization put there now may be good for five years, 10 or 15. But, eventually, the bay is going to have its way."

Either way, Seifert says she figures she and her housemate are living here on borrowed time. "I don't think we've got a year," she said. "We're going to tough it out as long as we can."

Reporter Frank D. Roylance contributed to this article .

Puritan tiger beetles(Cicindela puritana)

• Size: Less than half an inch long

•Diet: Insects and crustaceans

• Habitat: Along the Chesapeake Bay and New England's Connecticut River

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad