From Calvert County cliffside properties, homeowners battle tiger beetle, time

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 9:17 PM

When Dave Ector and Lidia Cucurull-Ector moved into their home in Calvert County in April 2008, it sat about 21 feet from the edge of a cliff. Following last week's rains and a series of landslides, the house is now just six feet from the 100-foot drop.

A landslide Friday afternoon was recorded by Ector as the couple and neighbors stood on the deck and watched a large chunk of land simply break off from the cliff and disappear.

"When we bought this place, there was plenty of space," Ector said. Now he says they were naive and should not have put so much faith in an engineer's report that the cliff was stable before they purchased the house with picturesque views in Chesapeake Ranch Estates. "I wish we hadn't bought it."

Within a year of purchasing the $400,000 home, they found out their eroding, unvegetated cliffs were one of the last remaining habitats of the endangered Puritan tiger beetle. About 300 of the estimated 3,000 Puritan tiger beetles living in Maryland live along cliffs of Chesapeake Ranch Estates, according to a 2009 study. The designation means land owners cannot disturb the land or habitat without a federal permit.

But the Ectors question the science behind that data and note that the Puritan tiger beetle's habitat was never officially designated as critical, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act.

Several Chesapeake Ranch Estates residents have been trying for years to get permits from federal, state and local governments to stabilize the cliffs and save their homes. A few of the 90 cliff dwellers have succeeded after long deliberations with multiple government agencies.

But the beetle is just part of the problem, according to state and federal officials. The lack of storm water management in the subdivision and having houses built on top of cliffs exacerbates the erosion.

"These cliffs naturally erode and sooner or later, a lot of these homes are going to be faced with this situation, whether they have tiger beetles or not," said John R. Griffin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Griffin led a task force to tackle the cliff dwellers' problems following a February town hall meeting among the stakeholders.

"People in these situations need to exert their own responsibility for buying a home on the cliff. . .when they know it is eroding," he said.

The task force plans to apply for $3 million in grants from state and federal emergency management agencies that would require a $1 million match from state or local governments or possibly homeowners, Griffin said. If approved, the money could be used to buy condemned properties or help homeowners move their homes further inland. The grant application will be submitted by December and could take a year to approve.

The task force's report, which will be presented to Calvert County commissioners on Oct. 26, includes short- and long-term plans to tackle the problem, but Griffin declined to go into detail because the report has not been finalized.

Ben Thompson, a neighbor of the Ectors, said the idea of a buy-out is "music to my ears." Thompson, who has rigged his garage with planks to divert gushing storm water away from his house, said,"then I get something out of it. I don't care if it is $50."

Neighbor Steve Waugh said he lost six feet of his yard during last week's storms.

"We are not losing this pebble by pebble. You. . .wake up one morning and trees are gone," Waugh said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found "a little bit of flexibility" in allowing property owners to take some actions that could harm the beetles and their habitat, said Leopoldo Miranda-Castro, supervisor for the service's Chesapeake Bay field office. "The Maryland and federal endangered species acts both require that the impacts to the population be minimized and mitigated," he said, allowing people more wiggle room when applying for permits.

The Ectors were found in violation of several environmental regulations when they recently dumped boulders over their cliff as part of what they thought was an approved project to lessen the impact of waves on the cliff. Local, state and federal officials said no permit was granted, but a loan to build a potential project was approved. Officials said that could hurt the Ectors in future funding decisions.

The Ectors argue the government has been denying homeowners permits to fix the eroding cliffs based on the Endangered Species Act, but say since the beetle's habitat was never declared critical, the law is invalid.

"They have not been following the law. They have been lying to people. Some people will die because of them. They should be ashamed," Cucurull-Ector said.

But other experts say the habitat designation doesn't matter in this particular case.

"The Endangered Species Act is triggered because of the presence of those beetles," Miranda-Castro said.

Bill Snape, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, said other federal permits issued for cliff stabilization projects in the area in the past have stated that there was no critical habitat and that measures to mitigate the impact on the beetles should be taken.

Meanwhile, Calvert County officials have deemed a portion of the Ectors' deck structurally unsound and have recommended the couple hire special engineers to assess the home's safety. None of the problems are covered by their homeowner's insurance.

The couple said they are going to begin packing their belongings. Moving the house, obtaining a permit to stabilize the cliff or getting emergency money are long shots, they said.

"It might be too late now for this house," Ector said.

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