ANNAPOLIS – A bill to allow the state more latitude in restricting development on private property near the Chesapeake Bay is languishing in a House committee over constitutional concerns.
A similar bill overwhelmingly passed a Senate committee, but the House has held it up because Committee Chairman Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil is concerned it’s an unconstitutional taking of property.
The legislation, he said, would prevent property owners along the bay from developing their land without compensating them for the loss of that improvement value.
Environmental groups are worried that if the bill doesn’t pass, property owners will be able to build along the bay shore, the last line of defense from pollution and run-off into the Chesapeake Bay.
The General Assembly passed the Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Act in 1984, establishing a buffer restricting development around the bay. However, three recent court cases have made it easier for landowners to gain exceptions to the act, according to the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission.
“What we’re trying to do is get the Critical Area law back to where it was in 1984,” said John North, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission.
Environmentalists and the commission said the court decisions open the floodgates for wealthy landowners seeking exceptions to the law.
The decisions were over small projects — such as White vs. North, which allowed a pool to be built in a landowner’s back yard — but environmentalists say these small projects will add up to major problems for the bay.
“If they are not overturned by this Legislature, I’m sure you’re going to see a drastic change in development along the shore,” said former Gov. Harry Hughes at a House committee hearing on the Senate bill.
Guns and other committee members have strong reservations over the constitutionality of the legislation. They think it could infringe on the rights of waterfront property owners.
The bill could put the state in the precarious position of having to compensate landowners to avoid breaking the Fifth Amendment, which says the government cannot take land without compensation, Guns said.
However, Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch sent Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, a letter saying it was constitutional.
“I just disagree,” Guns said.
Michael Weir, D-Baltimore County, sponsor of the House bill, which has not come up for a vote since it was heard in January, said the measure would likely pass if it was brought up.
“I think it’s sitting in his drawer because he’s afraid it will pass,” Weir said.
Guns and other committee members said the bill is not simply lying unattended in a dark drawer. Because the issue is complex and involves many conflicting opinions from lawyers and judges, he has taken time to talk all parties involved, he said.
Environmentalists are concerned the delay will result in rapid piecemeal development along the bay’s shore.
“We’re talking about swimming pools and intrusions into buffers, which are the last line of defense to the bay,” North said. “They’re harming the quality of their own front yard.”
Landowners are already lining up requesting exceptions as a result of the court decisions, North said.
“Property owners are concerned over their own rights,” he said. “Rather than the rights of the general public to own a healthy bay.”