Waterfront Homeowners Living on the Edge
Friday, February 22, 2008
On ritzy waterfront lots around Maryland, many homeowners are ignoring a rule against building anything too close to the shore -- and, in many cases, they're getting away with it.
In 116 cases since 2005, decks, pools, carports and even houses have been illegally built within a protected buffer zone near water, state records show. In two-thirds of the 81 cases for which full records are available, city or county officials have allowed the rule-breakers to keep what they built.
Not all violators meant to flout the law, Maryland officials said. But the state is pushing for a crackdown. Officials say that each offense chews away at the law's credibility and at the protected area, a green fringe of plants that acts as a natural filter for the state's waters.
"I don't know of any other area of the law that when you break the law . . . you say, 'Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know.' And then it all goes away," said Margaret McHale, who chairs the state's Critical Area Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays.
This month, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) introduced a bill that would increase the penalties for those who build first and ask questions later. Homeowners who are caught would be fined or have to replace trees before being considered for an "after-the-fact" variance. Contractors caught doing illegal work could lose their license.
Ren Serey, executive director of the Critical Area Commission, said that the proposed changes are designed to fix the current process, in which breaking the law can seem easier than following it.
"The system isn't working," Serey said. "That's going to be the proposal to make it work better."
But, in official rulings and interviews last week, local officials said there are often good reasons for allowing illegally built structures to stand. One deck was allowed because others like it had already been built in the neighborhood. In another case, a pathway was allowed because it gave a handicapped resident easier access to a pier.
In several cases, residents were required to replant trees or other vegetation, often in amounts greater than what was lost.
"To me, every case is an individual case," said Stephen LeGendre, an administrative hearing officer who considers variance applications in Anne Arundel County. "Certainly, there are some cases that are abusive, and those cases tend to be denied."
Anyone who has taken a boat or crossed a bridge in Maryland knows that its waterfront is heavily built up. But things were supposed to work differently after the law was enacted in 1984, when the state labeled the first 1,000 feet back from certain bodies of water "critical areas."
New development was to be limited in such areas -- and almost nonexistent in the first 100 feet back from the shoreline. The law applies to all of the Chesapeake Bay shoreline, as well as downstream portions of tributaries, including the Potomac, Patuxent and Severn rivers.