Talk about your shrinking property values.
Chunks of lawn are disappearing in the Cape Anne community in southern Anne Arundel County, where a remorseless Chesapeake Bay is chewing new and unwelcome shorelines.
"I'm just plain vulnerable," lamented Ken Workman, who has seen half the 60 feet of grass and beach that once stretched before his cottage washed away since the 1980s. He and others in the 147-home community want help to pay for shoreline buttressing beyond the grasp of a middle-class budget.
Their chances of getting it may soon improve. A state-appointed task force is to recommend next month that Maryland subsidize shore-erosion countermeasures such as stone revetments and breakwaters, panel members say.
Such spending would address a widespread and potentially growing problem.
Erosion affects nearly one-third of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay shoreline, according to federal estimates. Scientists say erosion could increase as the sea level rises, in part because of global climate changes.
If taken up by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and adopted by the General Assembly, the task force proposal would resume a practice abandoned because of tight budgets in the mid-1990s.
In preceding years, Maryland spent a little more than $1 million annually subsidizing structures to stem shoreline erosion. Since then, it has spent roughly half that amount annually on nonstructural projects that include planting aquatic grasses, said Leonard Larese-Casanova, administrator for shore erosion control at the state Department of Natural Resources.
Virginia officials said that state has no similar program.
In Maryland, task force members said they had not determined how much money to request, although several said the amount likely would run into the millions. Such a request would represent a brisk acceleration of the task force's original work plan, which envisioned substantial funding to begin in 2005.
That was before the panel, formed at the behest of the General Assembly, held six public meetings last month. The sessions proved to be something of an eye-opener, with public comment dominated by those distressed to see property disappearing.
"I think the average Marylander is not aware of the magnitude of this problem," said state Sen. Richard Colburn (R-Dorchester), a task force member. "This is an issue that really has not been addressed."
Legislators voting funds for erosion control may do so as a way to help constituents protect lawns, farm fields and beaches. But they can point to environmental motives, too. Marshes shelter an ecological cornucopia of birds and plants but are losing ground to open waters.
In much of the bay, soil loosed by shore erosion accounts for half the sediment that smothers baby oysters and coats struggling grass beds that shelter crabs and fish, said Michael Kearney, a coastal geologist at the University of Maryland.
Officials estimate Maryland's shoreline loss at 260 acres a year--an area approaching twice the size of the National Mall. An estimated 1,341 miles of shoreline is eroding, including 376 miles losing more than two feet of shoreline annually, officials said.
The numbers are daunting, especially since erosion-control measures range in cost from about $30 a foot (for plantings) to nearly $400 a foot (for massive revetments and bulkheads).
"No amount of state or federal money can address all shore-erosion needs," said Verna Harrison, a Department of Natural Resources official and task force member. She said officials will need to identify critical areas to protect, such as shoreline near oyster bars.
Several task force members said funding should be aimed at projects, such as offshore breakwaters, that preserve natural shoreline as much as possible.
Critics say extensive use of wooden bulkheads and stone revetments can produce an "armored shore" that creates a sheer, hard face in place of sandy and grassy beaches.
The shore before the structures erodes and disappears. That eliminates the publicly owned right of way below the high-tide line, preventing shoreline strolls.
In Maryland, hard structures have replaced 300 miles of natural shorelines in the past 20 years, according to research by James Titus, an Environmental Protection Agency expert on the rising sea level. He recommends that officials allow erosion to take its natural course on some shorelines.
Yet Maryland law gives property owners the right to shore up their property--a right they rarely relinquish, said Gary Setzer, a Department of the Environment official in charge of shoreline construction permits.
Workman, the Cape Anne property owner, certainly is not looking to forgo his property rights. A retired federal economist and District resident, he bought the yellow house as a weekend place in 1985.
The bay seemed far away. "No threat," as Workman put it.
But over the years, that has changed. The pace of erosion picked up after neighbors installed stone revetments. Last month, two tall oak trees toppled. An even bigger oak tree appears doomed, its massive root ball overhanging the ever-advancing beach.
When that tree goes, another dozen feet of ground will get pulled into the bay, out of 27 feet left between the house and the beach.
A parade of state and county officials has been by. One produced a sketch of a $35,000 set of breakwaters--a price Workman says he cannot justify.
"A $35,000 solution was no solution to me," Workman said. "I'm really under the gun here."
CAPTION: Dennis Liddy, of Churchton, stands near a neighbor's tree that is toppling into the Chesapeake Bay. Waterfront homeowners are asking the state to help them fight erosion.
CAPTION: Churchton homeowner Dennis Liddy and his wife, Joan, examine a failing wooden bulkhead along the bay. Property owners want state aid to stem erosion.