William Donald Schaefer, Baltimore mayor and a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said yesterday he supports weakening two hallmark programs designed to restore the Chesapeake Bay -- the critical areas legislation that seeks to restrict development around the estuary's rim and the ban on the catching of rockfish.
Schaefer, who stressed that he has "no plan" to dilute or dismantle the programs immediately, nonetheless suggested that the critical areas legislation, which will curtail development in the most environmentally sensitive areas of the bay shoreline, be relaxed as soon as a year from now. In addition, he said the rockfish ban imposed 16 months ago could be lifted "a couple of years from now" because it already appears the endangered, prized game fish is making a comeback.
"There will be a time when there will be a modification of critical areas," said Schaefer. "Not now . . . eventually in the future it will have to be looked at, maybe a year or 18 months."
Schaefer's comments, made during a campaign swing through Montgomery County, drew sharp criticism from environmentalists and from his main rival in the Democratic campaign for governor, Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, but were applauded by one Eastern Shore legislator.
Schaefer, who is expected to announce his candidacy for governor formally next month, suggested that a key component of the critical areas legislation approved by the General Assembly this year is too restrictive and should be relaxed.
Under the legislation, development in areas designated as "resource conservation" zones would be limited to one dwelling unit per 20 acres. A Critical Areas Commission official said yesterday the restriction would apply to 60 to 75 percent of the 1,000-foot buffer zone around the bay and its tributaries that is protected.
While stressing that he supports the restriction of one unit per 20 acres now "to make sure everyone really understands that cleaning up the bay is essential," Schaefer said it should eventually be relaxed to one dwelling unit per 10 or even five acres.
"You just can't say that you'll never be able to build on the Eastern Shore," said Schaefer. "There have to be adjustments, there should be adjustments."
The ban on rockfish, said Schaefer, should be kept on "as long as necessary" and then lifted until there is evidence it should be imposed again. Schaefer said that watermen had told him that the bay's premier sport fish were now abundant.
Sachs, who is struggling to overcome Schaefer's dominant lead in early public opinion surveys, accused the mayor of being "ready to cave in to real estate developers even before becoming governor." Schaefer, said Sachs, "has shown himself to be absolutely insensitive to a national treasure that literally defines Maryland."
"The overwhelming majority of Marylanders . . . want to save the bay," said Sachs. "Mayor Schaefer apparently wants to pave it. If Mayor Schaefer is ever governor, Marylanders will be in for a long environmental winter."
John Kabler, the political director for the League of Conservation Voters, a political action arm of several environmental groups, which recently endorsed Sachs' candidacy, said yesterday he was "appalled" by Schaefer's comments.
"The critical areas guidelines after years of deliberation were just passed," said Kabler. "To decide before they are even tried that they should be loosened is ludicrous . . . . Either the mayor doesn't understand the law or he wants to make the bay front look like some combination of the Inner Harbor and Ocean City."
William C. Baker, the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that both the critical areas program and rockfish ban were approved by the legislature and "need to be continued."
Del. Ronald Guns, an Eastern Shore lawmaker who led an unsuccessful fight this year to make the critical areas criteria less restrictive, applauded the mayor's comments as a demonstration of the kind of "flexibility" the Shore needs to protect the bay without curbing development unnecessarily.