A new development in St. Mary's County built on hilly terrain and sandy soil has angered nearby residents, who say mud running off the construction site is polluting a tributary of the Patuxent River.
None of the 392 homes planned for the Woods at Myrtle Point, a development on 286 acres in California, has been built. For now, controlling the sediment washing down the cleared hills remains a major challenge. In April, storm water broke through an earthen dike, one of several sediment-control measures on the property, and washed mud into Mill Creek, said Pat Mudd, director of development and engineering for the building company, P.F. Summers Inc.
The problem worsened when a contractor tried to clean the riprap rocks lining the ravine and washed more mud into the stream valley. Other small washouts have occurred on the property, and along Patuxent Boulevard the mud bank of a sediment pond is riven with the scars of erosion. Inspectors from the Maryland Department of the Environment have been to the property 25 times since June 2004, spokesman Richard McIntire said.
"It's a known trouble spot," he said.
Chip Dudderar, 58, who lives near the development, believes such problems could have been avoided.
"Steep slopes, soft soil? You could see what was coming. We tried to alert the county to the risk that they were taking, and they didn't heed our warning," he said. "Every time it rained, we were getting huge mocha latte runoffs. Mill Creek just turned brown."
Opponents of the development, including the Potomac River Association, want eight lots taken out of the plans because the houses would rest on slopes that are steeper than 15 degrees, said association President Erik Jansson.
"It's a disaster," Jansson said. "The homeowners are basically going to be buying lemons. They're not going to be able to handle the erosion."
The builders say they have gone to great lengths to protect the water quality around the development. They put up silt fences, built sediment traps, formed earthen dikes and adhered to an approved sediment control plan. After the breach in April, workers used buckets and shovels to dredge the bottom of the creek, Mudd said. The company has spent $90,000, including an additional $20,000 after the breach, to improve the sediment controls, project manager Dennis Riggs said.
When Riggs saw a contractor washing off the riprap, he said he realized it was a violation of environmental rules.
"I stopped the contractor immediately," he said.
"Since [the breach] we've taken a lot of measures to prevent that from happening again," Mudd said. "We've tried to work hand in hand with the inspector and the county agencies to try to alleviate any of their concerns."
In addition to the concerns over runoff, the subdivision, located in the county's development district, has run up against another of the county's nagging issues: school crowding.
At a recent Planning Commission meeting, approval of later phases of the development was delayed because of concerns that further building would not be permitted because of county regulations that prevent development in areas where schools are at capacity. The issue will be taken up again tomorrow by the Planning Commission.
In February, the Potomac River Association and other opponents filed a motion of reconsideration to the Planning Commission, trying to reverse the approval of the first phase of the development. They said two endangered plants -- the Short's hedge-hyssop and swollen bladderwort -- live on the land where the houses would be built. The approval was upheld.
Mudd said he hoped to have houses under construction in the fall, and his company plans to meet with the neighbors to try to allay their concerns. McIntire, of the Department of the Environment, said there were no easy solutions, considering the location's delicate geology.
"You're trying to develop a very difficult site," he said. "You tend to try not to allow pieces of development on lands that are this difficult. Once you crack it open, any number of things can happen."