To Mary Leigh Harless and her husband, Keith, the growth of St. Mary's County means more than lost farmland and congested highways. It also means guarding against sexual predators.
"Basically, our feeling is we're no longer a small community where we know everyone," said Mary Leigh Harless, who has two young children. "When you let your children out to play in the front yard, you want to feel somewhat secure."
To that end, the Town Creek couple has proposed a series of new laws aimed at making the community more aware of sexual offenders and keeping them away from children. In one, anyone convicted of a sexual offense against a minor would be required to register with the Maryland Sex Offender Registry. Currently, a judge has discretion over whether offenders are listed, Harless said. In another proposal, the couple want to prohibit sex offenders from living within half a mile of any school.
At a public forum Tuesday evening to discuss 21 proposals, would-be lawmakers such as the Harlesses had a chance to defend their ideas in front of the St. Mary's Board of County Commissioners, which can choose to forward potential legislation to the Maryland General Assembly for consideration during the upcoming session.
Of the four residents who presented proposals, three sought stricter regulation of sexual offenders. One would keep sex offenders from living near day-care centers, and another would decrease the number of "good time" days per month an inmate who is guilty of a sex offense against a minor could deduct from a sentence.
Another citizen-generated suggestion came from Raymond Dudderar of California, who has criticized the 286-acre Woods at Myrtle Point development near his home because of its troubles controlling sediment runoff during storms.
Dudderar said the Maryland Department of the Environment fails to effectively enforce erosion and run-off pollution rules because a procedure for defining pollution, and its causes, is not spelled out in law. Dudderar proposed requiring builders to thoroughly study the water and environmental quality before a site is altered for a construction project so that officials will have baseline data for later comparison.
"The law is defective," Dudderar told the commissioners. "It establishes subjective standards for what is pollution and what are damages."
Dudderar said that when he discussed the Woods at Myrtle Point with Department of the Environment officials, they were "very, very upfront that . . . there is absolutely no way for them to prove that damage had been done from run-off and sedimentation."
Some believe it would be impractical to do such water quality testing before every building project. Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Richard McIntire said having such data would not necessarily identify the culprit in subsequent pollution.
"I think there are too many other things that come to bear on a stream's profile and how a stream changes . . . to make it that cut and dried," he said.
St. Mary's County commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) told Dudderar, "I see your point; it's absolutely important." McKay said there are "relatively inexpensive devices for monitoring the water running off property."
Several county agencies and local organizations also proposed legislation.
The nonprofit group known as the St. Clements Hundred is requesting a $300,000 state bond bill to help pay for rebuilding the historic lighthouse on St. Clements Island. The lighthouse was built in 1851, was operated until 1932 and burned down in 1956. More than $150,000 has been raised for the project, said Richard Gass of St. Clements Hundred, and he plans to have the construction finished by January 2008.
"We really have a very ambitious schedule ahead of us," Gass said.
The St. Mary's County Commission on Aging, which recently hailed the passing of a county property tax credit for senior citizens, is pushing to have that change made permanent. In state legislation enabling the local tax credit, the General Assembly included a provision that terminates the credit after three years. The Commission on Aging proposed eliminating that sunset provision, a move supported by the county commissioners in recent discussions on the topic.
The Emergency Services Committee proposed a property tax credit: A break would be given to homeowners who install fire sprinkler systems in one- and two-family dwellings.
The county commissioners plan to decide Tuesday which of the proposals will be included in its agenda for the 2006 Maryland General Assembly. The commissioners and the St. Mary's legislative delegation have scheduled a joint public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Governmental Center in Leonardtown to discuss the proposals endorsed by the county.