ANNAPOLIS – The state needs to close a gap “a truck could drive through” in a law that restricts building along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, former Maryland Gov. Harry R. Hughes told lawmakers Tuesday.
Speaking before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, Hughes – who spearheaded numerous Chesapeake Bay initiatives in the mid-1980s – said three recent court decisions shifted the burden of proving that blocking development would pose an “unwarranted hardship” from landowners to the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission.
Backed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the bill before the Senate committee would bolster and clarify the critical area law, whose effectiveness Glendening and environmentalists say was undermined by the court decisions.
“This is probably the most important bill that has come up since the critical area bill came up in 1984,” Hughes said. “The interpretation made by the courts opened up a gap that a truck could drive through.”
The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law, passed in 1984, limits development within a 1,000-foot buffer around the bay. Its details are overseen by the Critical Area Commission.
Environmentalists say buffer zones reduce erosion and filter pollutants, preventing them from reaching the waters.
Although there have been abuses of the law, local municipalities also need to consider special cases when granting permission, or a variance, for developing within the buffer, said Bill Castelli, a lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Realtors.
In one of the three cases, the court sided with a Talbot County family who built a waterfront walkway for their wheelchair-using daughter, he said.
“We think that a reasonable variance program makes sense,” Castelli said. “We don’t think the court decisions should be wiped away.”
Under the critical area law, landowners wanting to build within the buffer must get a variance from their local board of zoning appeals. Although local ordinances vary, landowners usually need to show that the construction would not harm the environment and that blocking development would impose an “unwarranted hardship.”
Opponents, such as Bryson Popham of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Baltimore, also questioned whether a variance could be granted under the bill.
Tuesday’s hearing was not the first time the bill was heard. The legislation passed the Senate last session, but died in the House Environmental Matters committee over constitutional concerns.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Sierra Club, 1000 Friends of Maryland and the Maryland Conservation Council also support the bill.