What do you see in this picture? The blue waters of the mouth of the Chester River, as it flows into the Chesapeake Bay. A scenic shoreline on Kent Island, with a tree casting a shadow beside a farm field. Clouds drifting peacefully overhead.
Here's what you don’t see: 1,079 houses and condominiums that New Jersey-based developer Hovnanian Enterprises is proposing to build right here, blacktopping much of this waterfront scenery.
This photo –- and the massive Four Seasons housing project planned here, north of Route 50 in Stevensville, Maryland -- is an illustration of weaknesses in Maryland’s environmental and land-use laws. The development may be one of the largest ever built within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay since the 1984 passage of Maryland’s landmark Critical Areas law, which is supposed to protect waterfront areas.
Economic development is great, but it should be well planned. And there is no need for a massive construction project like this in fields right on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Kent Island is already overwhelmed with residential development and traffic problems, and the waterfront land here is vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise.
On July 24, the Maryland Board of Public Works (made up of Governor Martin O’Malley; Comptroller Peter Franchot; and Treasurer Nancy Kopp) decided not to act on the developer’s request for a state license to destroy wetlands on the 425-acre development site. (The plans for the site are shown above.)
Jay Falstad, Executive Director of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association (below), shook his head in disgust as he looked out on the fields threatened by the project on a recent morning. “It is our view that putting in this type of development -– to this size and scale -– on the waters of the Chester and the Chesapeake makes no sense,” Falstad said.
“Hopefully, the legislature -– and certainly the governor, the comptroller and the treasurer -– will find a way…to deny the wetlands license and prevent this monstrosity from occurring.”
The state board’s decision last week sent the project back down to the Queen Anne’s County government, which approved a controversial development agreement for the project more than a decade ago. The county must now consider a land preservation easement for part of the land that the builders say they will protect as a park. And the local government may also consider amending the development agreement to add additional environmental protections.
Some conservationists believe the county should now go back to the drawing board and reconsider -– and hold more public hearings and votes on –- the whole project. The developers maintain such a new round of local approvals and hearings will not be necessary.
The best resolution now could be to have the state and perhaps partners step in and buy the land, turning it into a public park or wildlife preserve.
The immediate picture is the snapshot at the top of this story: Beautiful waterfront property threatened with yet more ugly suburban sprawl.
But the bigger question is about control over development decisions. Yes, local governments deserve some control over land use within their boundaries. But huge projects such as the Four Seasons can cause harm far beyond municipal boundaries –- including to traffic on state and federal roads, and runoff pollution that flows downstream to contaminate the Chesapeake Bay and other bodies of water.
These issues transcend local political boundaries. And so control over projects like this should include more authority for state governments that can step back and take a more global view. The question should be: What’s in the best interests of everybody, not just the best interest of a few developers and local supporters interested in short-term cash.
We all have a stake in a healthy Chesapeake Bay. And so we should all raise our voices to oppose poorly-conceived projects like the Four Seasons.
So at 7 pm on September 17th when the Queen Anne's County Commissioners meet to discuss the issue at the Kent Island High School, we need to be there -– with our signs and posters, our passion and our voices. Let’s tell the county commission this is a culmination of bad decisions. We don’t want this development.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation