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

A homeowner shot this footage that shows a large chunk of Calvert Cliffs falling into the river below.
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.

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