ANNAPOLIS – An effort to limit the environmental impact of a 1,080-acre development slated to be built near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge south of Cambridge was defeated in the Maryland Senate Friday as legislators made it clear they had no desire to get involved in local land use controversies.
The action means that the best chance the project’s opponents have to block or alter the project now lies in the courts, where a lawsuit has been filed to force changes.
Senators said Friday they feared that getting the state Legislature involved in specific local land use issues would set a dangerous precedent. They said the venerable General Assembly tradition of leaving local issues in the hands of local officials – known as local courtesy – still trumps environmental concerns of lawmakers from other districts.
The bill was defeated on a vote of 20-27.
“I’m proud of the Senate for upholding local courtesy,” Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R – Eastern Shore, who represents Cambridge, said. “A senator who’s 113 miles away from a project can’t make local planning decisions for Dorchester County.”
However, Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D – Southern Maryland, said that on some occasions the General Assembly should get involved in local issues.
“The General Assembly has done it before,” Dyson said. “You don’t want to see it happen – but Blackwater is a national treasure.”
Some of the bill’s proponents went further, blaming the decision on election-year politics.
“I was saddened. I really thought it was going to pass given all the attention on the Chesapeake Bay lately,” Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, D – Montgomery, said. “I think it’s an election year and it’s a big developer that talks to other big developers, and a lot of my colleagues listen to the hands that feed them.”
The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. James Brochin, D – Baltimore County, was designed to protect the Little Blackwater River, a crucial Chesapeake Bay freshwater source which runs through the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on its way to the bay.
A comparable bill is currently in a House committee, but both its opponents and proponents predict it will die there as well.
If the House bill is defeated, it would leave a lawsuit filed this week by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and several Dorchester County farmers as the only remaining opportunity for opponents of the development to change its proposed plans.
Brochin’s bill would have prohibited development in the 1,000-foot buffer zone, also called the “critical area,” of the Little Blackwater River, except for a “green” golf course that meets certain environmental standards and has no major structures within the 1,000-foot buffer zone.
“We’ve got lots of golf courses in Maryland,” Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D – Montgomery said. “We’ve only got one Blackwater park in the country.”
But the bill was unacceptable, opponents said, because it would have specifically targeted entirely legal decisions made by the Dorchester County Council and the Cambridge City Council to bypass critical area guidelines and allow at least some commercial or residential development in the buffer zone.
“This is another usurping of local authority,” Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D – Charles, said. “This is an over-reaching. It would be nice when we all drive over to the Eastern Shore past Blackwater to see a pristine area, but that’s life everywhere.” The refuge is home to many species of water foul, including what Bill Gise, a fire control officer there, says is “probably the largest eagle concentration north of Florida.” It is also home to the endangered fox squirrel.