ANNAPOLIS – A House panel Friday overwhelmingly approved an environmental proposal extending protection for Maryland’s coastal bays, after days of sorting through an inch-thick book of amendments.
The House is expected to give preliminary approval on Saturday to the bill, pushing through one of Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s key environmental initiatives before the session ends Monday.
Senate leaders could not be reached Friday to comment on the House changes, but the administration is “comfortable” with the changes made by the House Environmental Matters Committee, said Glendening spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie.
The governor said earlier in the week that he is eagerly waiting for the bill to reach his desk.
The Senate voted last month to approve the bill that would extend developmental protection for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to the coastal bays of Assawoman, Isle of Wight, Sinepuxent, Newport and Chincoteague.
Under the bill, Maryland’s five coastal bays would be covered by the current critical area law, which limits development within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay, with tighter restrictions within a 100-feet buffer.
Environmentalists say buffer zones reduce erosion and filter pollutants before they reach the water.
In a “marathon” effort, several members of the House Environmental Matters Committee negotiated this week with concerned lawmakers, Worcester County officials and builders to come up with a satisfactory bill, said Delegate John A. Hurson, D-Montgomery.
“They culled it down to a series of amendments that conservative and liberal wings could agree to,” said Hurson, chairman of the committee that voted 20-1 in favor of the proposal.
The amended bill is “a very good bill because it gives us what we want, which is equal protection to the coastal bays,” said Erin Fitzsimmons of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.
The committee took two mandatory provision in the Senate version and made them a discretionary option for local jurisdictions.
Called “critical area-plus” mandates — because they are not required in the current critical area law — the Senate version would have required local programs to establish buffers along non-tidal streams and limit the length of piers that can be built.
“We’ve taken the critical area-plus provisions out of the bill, and that’s important,” said Delegate Kenneth Schisler, R-Talbot, who now supports the proposal. “It was also important for me that we didn’t use this bill to defeat projects under development for a long time.”
Ongoing development projects, including Holland Island, would be exempted from meeting certain building criteria.
The House version is a vast improvement over the Senate one because it no longer requires local jurisdictions to establish nontidal stream buffers or certain pier lengths, said Jonas Jacobson, a lobbyist for the Coastal Association of Realtors and the Eastern Shore Builders Association.
The bill passed by House Environmental Matters Committee “is consistent with the critical area law,” he said. “It’s now a level-playing field.”