By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007
The Maryland Board of Public Works yesterday rejected a wetlands permit for a development of 1,350 homes on an island just east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a project Gov. Martin O'Malley said would be so damaging to the bay it would not be in the state's best interest.
Explaining his vote after eight hours of testimony from opponents and the developer of Four Seasons at Kent Island, O'Malley (D) noted that K. Hovnanian had followed the rules and acquired every other necessary permit from local and state government.
"They have jumped through every hoop," said the governor, who serves on the public works board. "But this is not a canine hurdle exercise. Given the lack of assurance that this will not do further damage to wetlands in critical areas . . . I'm voting no."
The 2 to 1 vote -- with Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) joining O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) voting yes -- was hailed by environmental advocates as a sign of the new governor's commitment to environmentally friendly land-use policies as cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay has become a litmus test for Maryland politicians.
The vote was a defeat for the Washington region's second-largest residential builder, whose proposal for an active-adult community has roiled politics in Queen Anne's County for eight years. An otherwise routine permit request exploded into two days of testimony from environmental experts, activists and lawyers, as the board confronted the effect that stormwater runoff from the project would have on the already polluted bay. The site is bordered by water on three sides and is the largest stretch of environmentally sensitive land in Maryland.
"My goodness. The bay is dying," Franchot said.
It was unclear yesterday whether Hovnanian would abandon the project, scale it back without building on the wetlands portion of the 562-acre property or seek to overturn the board's decision with a legal challenge.
O'Malley, Franchot and Kopp expressed frustration with the state's longstanding policy of allowing local governments to set aside protected land for development, and in the case of Four Seasons, designate it a "smart growth" area to be densely built.
"Were I king of the hill, I wouldn't choose to put the development in this place, either," Kopp said in explaining her vote. She urged "reforms of our laws" that allow builders to develop Maryland's shoreline. But she said it would be unfair to change the rules to penalize one developer who had followed them.
Hovnanian had sought permission to build a pile-supported bridge, a small marina, a clubhouse and utility lines on less than an acre of wetlands. The permit was the final hurdle before construction and critical to the project. Several attorneys for the developer left the State House hearing yesterday without commenting. Franchot said he believes the project is dead without a wetlands permit.
Mark Stemen, president of Hovnanian's active-adult division, said last week that the company would weigh its options if the wetlands permit were denied.
Hovnanian officials said their community of condominium towers and single-family homes would generate tax revenue and jobs for Queen Anne's. And they said runoff from the project would add less pollution to the bay than runoff from the farm now on the property. Local Chamber of Commerce officials testified in favor.
"While you may want to see some of the state laws and land-use regulations change, to start ad hoc changing that at the end of this process would be a mistake," Joe Stevens, an attorney for Hovnanian, told the board yesterday.
But opposition from Kent Island activists proved overwhelming. The controversy has consumed local politics with lawsuits and countersuits, bloggers and new community groups, a gag order on county commissioners and recrimination from voters -- who in two elections routed a majority of commissioners who supported the project.
"I have heard [from the developer] that only a few people in Queen Anne's County are opposed to Four Seasons and most don't care," said Raymond Simmons of the opposition group Citizens Alliance to Save Our County. But "nobody who signed a pledge ever made it through the primary."
Much of the opposition focused on an agreement commissioners signed with Hovnanian in 2003 not to say anything negative against Four Seasons in public. The settlement came out of a lawsuit the developer filed against the county for stalling the project.
Franchot called the agreement a gag order. In an opinion issued this week, the attorney general's office said it is legal for a local government to agree to restrict its criticism. But the opinion said the restriction should not apply to business before the state -- and should not preclude a commissioner from speaking out as an individual.