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Governor Ehrlich Rejects Smart Growth
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by Lisa McGreevy | 2006

Endorsement of mega-development near Blackwater Wildlife Refuge puts farmland, wetlands, bald eagles at risk. Development Threatens the Treasured Blackwater Wildlife Refuge

When talking to people from the Mid-Atlantic region, it’s not uncommon to hear folks say that they saw their first bald eagle at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, near Cambridge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. With the largest breeding population of bald eagles on the Atlantic Coast outside of Florida, Blackwater Refuge is a popular destination in Cambridge and a source of pride to many Marylanders.

The 27,000-acre refuge, which has been labeled the “Everglades of the North,” is best accessed via its Wildlife Drive, where visitors quickly appreciate its captivating charm. Beautiful wetlands stretch as far as the eye can see, loblolly pine trees line the quiet roads and trails, and eagles and ospreys hunt for fish over the Blackwater River—a spectacle that can provide cherished memories for a lifetime. At its heart, Blackwater Refuge represents all that is right about America’s public lands.

But not all is well at Blackwater Refuge. The march of development is coming. It’s in the air and it’s on the drawing board. And soon the sounds of cement trucks will drown out the screams of eagles.

The farmland that leads to Blackwater Refuge has caught the eye of developer Duane Zentgraf, who at this moment is pushing for final approval of his Blackwater Resort Communities, a billion-dollar project that will be located two miles from the Refuge along Egypt Road. Once completed, the mega-development will bring 3,200 single-family and multi-family homes, a 100-room hotel/conference center, a golf course, and a retail center to 1000-plus acres of what is now farmland. Within the project zone are over 300 acres of “Critical Area” land, which includes a designated “Resource Conservation Area” and “Habitat Protection Areas.”

The project is adjacent to the Little Blackwater River (LBR)—a river that feeds directly into the heart of Blackwater Refuge and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff at Blackwater have not officially opposed the project, but have raised grave concerns regarding the impact of stormwater runoff on water quality and aquatic life in the brackish wetlands of the refuge. Southern Dorchester County is known for its poorly drained soils, high tides, and rising sea levels, and Egypt Road has a history of flooding. In her testimony before the Dorchester County Council, Blackwater senior biologist Dr. Dixie Birch addressed the danger of more paving: “We have analyzed the changes to impervious surfaces that the Blackwater Resort Communities development will have on the LBR watershed by working with the Environmental Protection Agency modeling system called ‘NEMO’. This development project will increase the impervious surfaces of the LBR by 12 to 13%. Previous scientific studies by Galli in 1994 and the Center for Watershed Protection in 2000 have clearly demonstrated that when the impervious surfaces in a watershed exceed 10% there is a sharp decline in fish populations and water quality.”

 

A Failure of Maryland Government

The most surprising aspect of the Blackwater Resort Communities project is not that a developer wanted to buy farmland near the shore—it’s that so many members of Maryland government failed to stop the ill-advised scheme when they had the chance.

To accommodate the developer, the Cambridge city government annexed the 1000-plus acres of farmland to bring it within city limits, since it was not near the town and was not in the city’s growth plan. Dorchester County’s comprehensive plan designated it a town/incorporated area after annexation, and the property was rezoned from “Agricultural” to “Planned Water Resort District.” Governor Ehrlich’s Department of Planning then designated the site a state “priority funding area,” making the project eligible for state funding for roads and sewers.

When Planning Secretary Audrey Scott was asked to defend their decision to approve the plan—since it will eat up farmland, degrade water quality, and threaten a major wildlife refuge—she first replied that they didn’t have the authority to reject it. When it was pointed out to her that she indeed did under the 1997 Smart Growth Act, she said they feared getting sued.

Maryland’s Critical Area Commission will get its say in the final approval of the growth allocation that the developer needs to reclassify a “resource conservation area” to an “intensely developed area.” Mary Owens, chief of program implementation for the state Critical Area Commission, told The Baltimore Sun that she didn’t see the commission stopping it since “I hate to see farmland get subdivided and municipal boundaries extended, but this is the land the developers are interested in.”

Al Barry, a Baltimore-based planning consultant who helped Cambridge write its land-use plan, told The Baltimore Sun that, “The state and city are abdicating their planning responsibility to react to the developer’s whim.”

 

Cambridge Citizens Get Angry

The developer has performed his own environmental assessment.  But the senior biologist and refuge manager at Blackwater NWR are calling for a baseline study of water quality and quantity conditions of the Little Blackwater River before growth allocation is awarded, since the project lacks an environmental impact statement. And this issue concerns the residents of Cambridge, who have been told repeatedly by local politicians and the developer that the project is environmentally sound.

Out of desperation, the citizens of Cambridge have asked for help, and that help has arrived in the form of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. On Monday January 30, 2006, the CBF held a town hall meeting in the Cambridge American Legion Hall, where 350 residents crowded into a standing-room-only meeting and demanded that the project be terminated to protect their environment and their quality of life. Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest—the only local politician who is apparently listening—told the crowd that he was fully supportive of the CBF’s intervention and he opposed the project, which he said sets a dangerous precedent for towns throughout Maryland. Toward the end of the meeting a farmer, a waterman, a doctor, and numerous local residents came forward to condemn the project. Chants of “NO, NO, NO” could be heard from many in the crowd as they voiced their frustration.

But as this newsletter goes to press, the Cambridge City Council is indicating it will follow the lead of the Dorchester County Council and give final approval to the largest growth allocation in Maryland history, which will allow Blackwater Resort Communities to build a golf course and housing in the designated “Critical Area” habitat near the Little Blackwater River.

 

Wrong Development in the Wrong Place

The CBF is vowing to fight the project with every tool available. Aiding their effort is Senator Jim Brochin (D-42) of Baltimore who has introduced bill SB 257 in the Maryland Senate, which will prevent growth allocation for development within 1000 feet of a major tidal tributary near a wildlife refuge. Senator Richard Colburn (R-37) from Dorchester County has been puffing about in anger that “outsiders” are attempting to get involved, but Colburn’s indifference to his constituents’ concerns is driving the need for action by someone who is willing to listen to the citizens of Cambridge.

The CBF is currently collecting signatures for a petition that asks Governor Ehrlich to intervene on behalf of the citizens of Cambridge. Unfortunately, this is the same governor who was caught trying to sell Maryland conservation land to a construction executive without the public’s knowledge, and who had planned to create a database of other state lands he could sell.

Journalist Tom Horton, formerly of The Baltimore Sun, warned of Ehrlich’s disdain for conservation land in a January 21, 2005 Sun article, when he wrote, “ When I interviewed him, running for governor a couple of years ago, two things stood out. He said he would do his darndest to clean up sewage pollution. But he had no enthusiasm for preserving land or fighting sprawl... In Ehrlich’s administration, even using the words ‘Smart Growth’ is discouraged.”

The origin of Maryland’s celebrated 1997 Smart Growth Act can be credited to Parris Glendening, the Democrat who preceded Ehrlich as governor, and who was always a fierce champion of the bill. John W. Frece, a former Glendening aide who is at the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, highlighted Ehrlich’s failure in leadership when he told The Baltimore Sun: “the key to making it work was always leadership at the governor’s level.” Governor Ehrlich’s response to the Blackwater Resort controversy has been to label it a local issue and to say he will likely veto any bill that stops the project.

 

Maryland’s Future in the Balance

The question is simple: Will Maryland citizens be allowed to pursue smart growth on their own terms or will politicians—dazzled by wealthy developers—be allowed to violate the public will? The Maryland Sierra Club fully supports the citizens of Cambridge in their effort to encourage smart growth, to protect their quality of life, and to safeguard their natural resources. We wait to see if Maryland’s politicians will afford them the same consideration.

 

How to Help:

Visit the Maryland Sierra Club website for updates on the Blackwater project: http://maryland.sierraclub.org/

 

Visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation website for updates on their Blackwater campaign:www.cbf.org/blackwater.  

 

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