ANNAPOLIS – Non-native oysters, gasoline additives, black bears and land preservation are just some of the environmental topics lawmakers say will likely emerge the General Assembly session that begins in January.
A proposed bill and constitutional amendment to subject environmentally sensitive land sales to a legislative vote could dominate the environmental discussion. The proposals come in response to recent controversy over the state’s role in a failed preservation land transaction with developer Willard Hackerman.
“It’s a reaction to the Hackerman deal,” said Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, who will sponsor legislation in the House, “because the Hackerman deal was going on . . . while all these other processes they’re talking about were supposedly in place to protect us.”
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, will sponsor the amendment in the Senate. Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, will sponsor the related bill, intended to be more specific than the amendment.
The state drew criticism two months ago when news reports detailed a plan to sell 836 acres of St. Mary’s County forest to Hackerman at cost. Hackerman has since claimed the deal was not secret, and that he would have kept the land mostly preserved, contrary to critics’ claims.
Under the amendment, which is still being drafted, Franchot said public land sales could be consolidated into one vote before the Legislature.
“Not a big burden, very straightforward, and that’s the process we envision,” said Franchot.
“If we’re going to dispose of land acquired for preservation,” said Frosh, “it’s going to be done with the approval of the General Assembly . . . I don’t think it’ll require much extra effort and it’ll provide sunshine that’s badly needed.”
But Delegate Richard Sossi, R-Queen Anne’s, who serves on the House Environmental Matters Committee, said there’s no need for such legislation.
“This is not a haphazard method,” he said of the process in place for selling public land. “It may have gotten reported haphazardly, which is unfortunate.”
Currently, land sales must pass through the Department of Planning before being voted on by the Board of Public Works.
“This is hardly what you’d call holding an auction out the back door,” said Sossi.
While the land deal has dominated the recent environmental debate, lawmakers expect other issues to take the stage in the spring.
Sossi said he pre-filed a bill intended to phase out the gasoline additive, MTBE. The toxic chemical, methyl tertiary butyl ether, has emerged in hundreds of drinking wells in Maryland, despite efforts to curb gas station leaks.
And Sossi said he’s anxious to see approval for the introduction of non-native oysters to the Chesapeake Bay, and hopes lawmakers don’t dawdle.
“The oyster population is dwindling and dwindling,” said Sossi, supporting Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s push for the expeditious introduction of large, disease-resistant Asian oysters into the bay.
Frosh, though, is drafting a bill calling for thorough scientific research before introducing alien species. The National Academy of Sciences has said five more years of research would be required to ensure the Asian oysters don’t disrupt bay ecology.
“The history of ecosystems is rife with examples of disastrous experiments of non-native species,” said Frosh, citing nutria, snakeheads and mute swans as just a few Maryland examples.
“We introduce dinner-plate-sized oysters, and they have dinner-plate-sized viruses,” said Franchot. “It’s typical, seat-of-the-pants, don’t-bother-me-with-the-facts, this-is-what-I-want-to-do Ehrlich administration process.”
Finally, black bear hunting will re-emerge as an issue with a bill already drafted by Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s, to outlaw it. Frush said her measure would give the power to declare a bear hunt to the General Assembly, and not the Department of Natural Resources.
This past October, Maryland held its first black bear hunt in 51 years, which triggered heavy opposition from the Fund for Animals, the public and some legislators. The DNR has said a hunt is likely next year, to continue to control the population.
“My concern with the bear hunt is that no one would give us an accurate count of how many bears there were in Maryland,” said Frush. Furthermore, she said, the last hunt, which bagged 20 bears, probably did not capture the nuisance bears responsible for complaints to the DNR.
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