By Steuart Pittman
Anne Arundel County has some good environmental laws on the books. Those laws are designed to protect our natural areas and our many rivers, creeks and streams that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Our county has a strong environmental ethic, and our communities depend on a clean, healthy environment as part of their quality of life.
But to truly protect our natural environment, our laws must be properly enforced. That is why I joined other conservation leaders at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on May 15 to announce two new policies that will better protect our environment when land is proposed for development. These new policies are effective immediately and will save sensitive environmental wetlands from being developed and make it more difficult for developers to get waivers from existing laws.
Wetlands filter our waterways and provide important habitat for wildlife. And generally, if an area is wet enough to be a wetland, then it probably isn’t the best place to build something anyway. When I came into office, I discovered that the current practice was to allow developers themselves to mark where wetlands were on a property they were proposing to develop.
Wetlands are protected areas, and delegating the authority to protect them to developers is counterintuitive. So, from now on, Anne Arundel County will partner with the Maryland Department of the Environment to verify the location of wetlands before any development occurs on a site.
Our second policy significantly expands protections for a broader classification of important natural features and sensitive areas, such as priority forests, streams, floodplains and steep slopes. Our county code is filled with protections for these areas, but unfortunately, these protections can be avoided using a mechanism called a modification.
Modifications allow developers to receive a waiver for specific development requirements. Modifications give planners flexibility with site design, but they can also be used to get around our environmental regulations. Not anymore.
From now on, when a developer seeks a modification to an environmental regulation, they will have to provide thorough justification for why that modification is needed. Any modifications that would have an adverse impact on the environment must include a plan to mitigate those effects, subject to approval by our Planning and Zoning officer. If they cannot adequately protect our environment, then the request will be denied – plain and simple.
The interesting part about these two new policies is that no new legislation is required. The laws are already on the books – we just need to enforce them. We must be true to the environmental policies that past county executives and county councils have passed. On May 15, my administration committed to doing that.
To further protect our environment, we need adequate staffing levels at our Office of Planning and Zoning and our Department of Inspections and Permits. We have a dedicated staff of planners and inspectors, but there simply are not enough of them. Our inspectors are responsible for monitoring far more sites than any other county in Maryland, with fewer inspectors to do it. In fact, our inspectors have triple the erosion and sediment control workload of the next busiest county.
Our proposed Fiscal Year 2020 budget adds four additional environmental inspectors to our Inspections and Permits team and six new planners to our Office of Planning and Zoning team, allowing them to establish an environmental review division. Together, these additional personnel will help us visit more sites more frequently and ensure that our environmental regulations are being followed.
We will continue to review existing policies to protect our communities, our environment, and our people and we will support those priorities with our budget. When we can, we will issue policy guidance to ensure our laws are properly enforced. When we identify a need for code changes, we will propose new legislation and work with the county council. A clean, healthy environment is an important part of making Anne Arundel County “the best place.”