Friday, November 11, 2005

Clearing the Critical Area

On Tuesday, the Capital reported that local waterkeepers are working with the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Center to commission a study assessing how effectively the State and County have been enforcing the Critical Area Act.

I suspect many of us who spend time around the water, particularly the waterkeepers, have a pretty good idea of the likely answer to this question. Good thing it's being done pro bono.

When informed of the prospective study, County Spokesperson Pam Jordan offered, "For those who knowingly or unknowingly violate the Critical Area laws, enforcement penalties in Anne Arundel County have never been stronger." Given that a 2003 University of Virginia Environmental Law Journal study found that 86 percent of the critical area variances applied for in Anne Arundel County were granted, it's hard to decide whether to laugh or shed a tear at such earnestness.

My guess on the findings: 1) The fines for violations are still too low; 2) There aren't enough inspectors to do the job properly (and so it isn't getting done properly); and, 3) when the county does accidentally stumble upon the occassional violation, the political will to prosecute the case fully is lacking. Therefore, if you're wealthy enough, and most waterfront homeowners are, you clearcut down to the water, pay a couple grand, and tell the County to go stuff it.

The critical area is "all land and water areas within 1,000 feet beyond the landward boundaries of tidal wetlands, the Bay and its tributaries." Within this area, which almost every waterfront home in the county surely is (as well as many homes that may not even be waterview), it is illegal to clear or cut trees, or build or grade without a permit. That means, if you live within 1,000 feet of the water, you need to contact the Critical Area Commission and get permission in advance to do these things.



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