CROWNSVILLE-A state land use commission voted unanimously Wednesday against a proposal to develop environmentally sensitive land near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, dealing a major setback to a controversial $1 billion development that has become a symbol of the struggle to balance growth with environmental protection.
The Critical Area Commission vote means that Dorchester County and the city of Cambridge, which both approved the development, will not be permitted to allow development on almost a third of the 1,072-acre proposed development. But that could be enough to make the development untenable in its present form, since many of the plan’s most attractive features, including a golf course and a commercial center, are located on land under the jurisdiction of the commission.
Environmental groups and citizen opposition groups rushed to claim a decisive victory.
“We hope that this will send a strong message that if you seek to pollute the waters of Maryland, your permit will be denied,” said William Baker, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has fought the proposal. “We think that this is a new day in Maryland in terms of critical areas and the development of land.”
William “Sandy” McAllister, lawyer for developer Duane Zentgraf, could not be reached for comment.
To move forward with the project, Zentgraf would likely have to change his proposal and go back through county and city processes, although there have been cases of appeals in the past, according to Ren Serey, commission executive director.
At issue are lands deemed “Critical Areas” because they lie within 1,000 feet of tidal wetlands and waters in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. To help protect these areas, the state in 1984 created the Critical Area Commission, which established criteria for local jurisdictions to institute laws to mitigate adverse environmental impacts from development.
The proposed location straddles a serene, bucolic expanse recently annexed by Cambridge on the outer edge of town. Portions of the site abut the Little Blackwater River, which feeds the Blackwater River.
The commission formed a panel to review the project and provide a recommendation on whether the program would be accepted. The five-member panel knocked the project on several fronts, from project location to potential harm in water quality.
“The panel believes there is a lack of documentation explaining how the growth allocation is consistent with the purposes, goals, and provisions of the Critical Area Commission,” the panel wrote in its report to the full commission, which is appointed by the governor.
Wednesday’s decision vindicated Blackwater Resort Communities foes who claim the development flouts the state’s “Smart Growth” principles for promoting growth near already existing developments and away from environmentally threatened areas.
The panel unanimously rejected the location of the development, insisting that the proposal contravened a law requiring new development in critical areas to be situated adjacent to existing development.
“Adjacency was the killer issue for them,” said Douglas Worrall, a member of Dorchester citizens for planned growth.
Worrall says he is sympathetic to local lawmakers who want to enrich their localities through development, but only if growth is managed prudently.
“We just said, ‘Wait a minute, this place is bordering river and it’s outside the natural confines of the city,” he said. “If they would have picked it up and put it in the existing areas of the city, we would have applauded it.” The panel also criticized the proposal for developing within what is supposed to be a 300-foot buffer between the edge of tidal wetlands or waters, but not offering countermeasures that would have equivalent or greater benefits on water quality.