Cliff residents might lose homes to save endangered beetles

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010; B01

One hundred feet above the Chesapeake Bay, atop Calvert County's scenic cliffs, a battle rages between man and a tiny insect, the Puritan tiger beetle.

The ground is literally falling out from beneath cliff-dwelling property owners in Lusby, and their push to stop the erosion has collided with government efforts to protect one of the few remaining habitats of the endangered species. The beetle, a predator that controls insect pests, needs naturally eroding, unvegetated cliff face to survive.

Residents of Chesapeake Ranch Estates, which has some prime real estate offering picturesque views of the bay, no longer visit the slim beaches beneath the cliffs because a 12-year-old girl was killed by a landslide in 1996. Last month, the property owners' association closed a portion of one of the subdivision's streets because the road is now just 25 feet from the cliff's edge. William Carmichael woke up the day after Thanksgiving to find that 12 feet of his property had rolled down the cliff face, taking his hot tub with it.

Carmichael has lost 40 feet of his property since he moved in about 20 years ago.

"It is ridiculous. The whole damn thing is stupid," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), House of Delegates minority leader. "We have to find a way to help these people save these homes."

The Puritan tiger beetle, Cicindela puritana, is listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. In Maryland, home to the beetle's largest global population, it is endangered.

"I would equate the loss of the Puritan tiger beetle with the loss of the polar bear," said Michael Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland in College Park. "If it had fur and a cute smile and were the size of a cat, people would be more concerned about the loss of this thing."

Nearly 90 properties with about 80 homes are perched along the top of the cliffs in Chesapeake Ranch Estates. Dozens more properties along Calvert's eastern shore are in similar situations. State and federal agencies keep denying proposals to stop the erosion because the plans would destroy the beetle's habitat.

About 5,000 Puritan tiger beetles are left on the planet, about 4,500 of them in Maryland, said Glenn Therres, a biologist who heads the endangered-species program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The beetle is found only in Calvert, along the Sassafras River between Kent and Cecil counties and along the Connecticut River in New England. The population was as high as 11,000 in the 1980s, Therres said, and the decrease is largely due to the loss of habitat.

On average, cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay erode at a rate of less than two feet a year, said Bhaskar Subramanian of the Department of Natural Resources. That's ideal for the Puritan tiger beetle but not for property owners.

Beginning in 1984, Calvert required at least 300 feet between a new home and a cliff's edge, said Gregory Bowen, the county's planning and zoning director. If construction took place in an older community, such as Chesapeake Ranch Estates, the house could be as close as 100 feet from the edge. Before that, property owners could build as close to the edge as they wanted.

"The fact is, these things erode," said Kevin Smith, chief of the Department of Natural Resources' restoration services department. "They have been eroding for hundreds of years. When [Capt.] John Smith was sailing up the Chesapeake, these bluffs were eroding at that time."

After several years of planning with state and federal agencies, some Chesapeake Ranch Estates property owners were permitted in 2005 to install hollow concrete balls offshore to slow powerful waves hitting the cliffs.

The $200,000 project did not work, said Tony Vajda, a homeowner and primary point man for the effort.

Vajda has reapplied for a permit for a stone wall at the base of the cliffs to stop erosion. The Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the permit be denied and instead proposed segmented breakwaters, large rock walls placed a significant distance offshore. They suggested the same idea in 2005.

Breakwaters, which have been successful in other bay locations, allow limited erosion, slowing the process for homeowners but maintaining beetle habitat, Therres said.

"We try as best as we can to accommodate the wishes of the landowner, but we can't do it at the expense of an endangered species," Therres said.

Chesapeake Ranch Estates property owners are not convinced. Vajda said there is no place for the sand to accumulate to stabilize the cliff before it washes away.

"We have houses that are in danger, and they need armored shoreline, period," he said.

Leopoldo Miranda-Castro, supervisor of the Chesapeake Bay Field Office for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he wants to study contributing factors and alternatives, such as working with the Department of Natural Resources to move the beetle to protected habitat and examining the soil's hydrology.

"The population numbers are so, so low and limited, any action could result in the extinction of the species," he said.

The Maryland General Assembly passed a law in 2005 that allows incidental takings of the protected beetle with federal approval. O'Donnell, who sponsored the bill, is planning a town hall discussion to seek a compromise to help homeowners.

"Right now, they are not getting the help they need from government," he said.

Calvert County commissioners recently sent a letter to their federal representatives asking for assistance.

Property owners, meanwhile, worry that more of their land will slide down the cliff face while they are working with government agencies to find a solution.

"I have yet to have any agency convince me that the protection of the beetle should trump protection of the people," Vajda said.

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