The developer of the proposed Four Seasons project, the New Jersey-based Hovnanian Enterprises, is promising to be responsible about handling stormwater pollution that will pour off the huge waterfront project. But three years ago, Hovnanian was forced to pay a $1 million fine to EPA because of stormwater violations at 591 development sites, including 161 in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, according to the federal agency.
The development on the small, increasingly crowded island doesn’t make sense –- from an environmental perspective, or from a planning viewpoint. Kent Island is already overwhelmed with sprawl, and the low-lying development site next to the mouth of the Chester River is vulnerable to flooding, especially with sea level rise.
A more than decade-long war over the Four Seasons project flared up again yesterday at the Maryland Board of Public Works. After hearing more than five hours of testimony, Governor Martin O’Malley and state officials sent the project back down to the Queen Anne’s County to resolve questions about land preservation and permitting before the state will consider a license to destroy wetlands for the construction.
Will Baker, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (right), was among several people who advised the board not to approve the wetlands license. “We work in six states at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Maryland has always been a leader,” Baker said. “But I don’t know of any other state that has a project of this scope, and importance, and potential damage to the Bay or its tributary rivers.”
The three-member board (made up of the governor, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Treasurer Nancy Kopp) was forced to reconsider a wetlands license for the project yesterday because the Maryland Court of Appeals last year overturned a 2007 decision by the board to deny approval of the license.
That 2-1 vote by O’Malley and Franchot six years ago against the Four Seasons project was hailed by many environmentalists as an impressive sign of the green credentials of the two then newly-elected officials.
After losing that vote, the developers modified the project to reduce its size. The project discussed by the board yesterday was 1,079 homes on 425 acres of what is now farm fields north of Route 50 in Stevensville, instead of the 1,350 homes on 556 acres as proposed back in 2007. And the developers also claim they will eliminate a bridge to reduce the project’s harm to wetlands, and create a 131-acre park on part of the land where they once planned houses.
“We appreciate the downsizing of this,” O’Malley said. “But how do we know there won’t be a bait and switch?” with the developer later deciding to allow construction on the park site, the governor asked.
“It’s good faith,” said Charles Schaller, an attorney for Hovnanian.
That wasn’t good enough for O’Malley or the rest of the board. They said they would not vote on the question of disturbing wetlands until the county and developer agree to put an easement on the park land to protect it permanently, and take other steps to resolve local permitting and planning issues raised yesterday by local protesters and environmentalists.
Kopp said that it would be wiser to build such a large housing project farther away from the water, in an area less vulnerable to flooding and sea-level rise. “It shouldn’t be there,” Kopp said. But the treasurer added that the Court of Appeals had ordered the Board of Public Works to keep a narrow focus on consideration of a state license to destroy 820 square feet of wetlands for the project, not the overall merits of the project or its location.
“I agree. It shouldn’t be there,” O’Malley said. “But that’s not what’s before us.”
“We think this is certainly a step in the right direction,” Falstad said. “The Board of Public Works asked some very hard questions today of the developer. We think this thorough analysis is good for everyone, particularly for the residents on Kent Island. We welcome greater transparency and more understanding of what this project is all about.”
The Queen Anne’s Conservation Association brought three attorneys to yesterday’s hearing, and each testified about problems with the developer’s proposal.
One of those lawyers, Rosemary Green, told state officials that Hovnanian’s record of stormwater violations suggests the developer will likely not do a good job of following through with its new promises to build the project in an ecologically sensitive way.
“We know that Hovnanian has a longstanding, widespread history of stormwater discharge violations,” Green said. “We feel there’s enough information right now to deny the permit.”
A date for the state board’s reconsideration of the issue has not yet been set, as deliberations now move back to the local Queen Anne’s County government.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation