O'Malley Dives Into Rift On Shore Development

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 19, 2007

CHESTER, Md. -- The saga of Four Seasons at Kent Island has enough drama for a page-turning novel, with a deep-pocketed developer, political knife fights and local residents fearing that a delicate ecosystem is about to be turned into sprawling condominiums and houses.

In office just four months, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is wading into an eight-year battle over 1,350 homes proposed on Maryland's Eastern Shore that some local advocates are calling a test of his commitment to the environment.

K. Hovnanian, a national builder that has set its sights on the largest island in the Chesapeake Bay, is seeking a state wetlands permit to build a pier, bridge, clubhouse and utility lines at the edge of the homes. Water surrounds the project on three sides. The largest swath of environmentally sensitive land, just east of the Bay Bridge, would be developed.

O'Malley has signed legislation requiring carmakers to reduce emissions and pledged to restore land preservation money diverted by his predecessor. The state agreed last month to buy 728 acres of protected land, also on the Eastern Shore, to scale back a golf resort planned on the Little Blackwater River.

But Four Seasons at Kent Island has proved a more complicated political challenge.

Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson said Kent Island "would not be the place where you would have development going" to meet the region's goals of restoring the bay. But her office says Hovnanian has followed all of the rules about development on the shoreline. A wetlands permit would be the final hurdle before construction could start.

Officials with the New Jersey-based developer, the Washington region's second-largest residential builder, say their community for adults older than 55 will bring jobs and tax revenue to an area brimming with homes. "We've jumped every hoop and met every environmental requirement," Mark Stemen, president of Hovnanian's active-adult division, said yesterday. "There's no legal basis to deny it."

The dispute has consumed Queen Anne's County politics with lawsuits and countersuits, gag orders, mistakes by local planners and recriminations from voters, who in two elections tossed out a majority of the members of the board of commissioners who supported the project.

Its fate is in the hands of O'Malley and the state's comptroller and treasurer, who make up the state's Board of Public Works. The board has scheduled a vote on the permit for Wednesday.

"It's the rights of property owners versus government's rights to address issues that arise from how people use their property," said Frank M. Kratovil Jr., the state's attorney for the county, who is not involved officially in the case. "The question is going to be: Where does the buck stop?"

Flooding and runoff from the low-lying 560-acre corn farm Hovnanian bought in 1999 have polluted the bay for decades. But development is among the worst culprits ailing North America's largest estuary, and environmental groups and some residents are alarmed, fearing that Hovnanian's development along five miles of shoreline would worsen it.

"If he votes in favor of this, the governor will have adopted Four Seasons," said Mike Koval, a former member of the Queen Anne's board who opposes the project. The governor has not signaled how he will vote.

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