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Under St. Mary’s County regulations gravel mines need special approvals from the zoning board of appeals to operate. Now a state judicial case says county governments don’t have that authority, which rests with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The St. Mary’s County commissioners recently said they didn’t want to give up that authority just yet. There are several gravel mining operations within the county.

With a state permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment, “there’s really little the county can do anymore,” said George Sparling, county attorney.

The county’s board of appeals sets rules on setbacks and buffers between gravel mines and neighbors. The commissioners asked if the state places those same conditions.

“They have setbacks less stringent than the board of appeals,” said Phil Shire, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use and Growth Management.

“The whole concept of conditional use is making good neighbors,” Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) said. “If they don’t want to be a good neighbor, that’s where the problem comes in. I think it opens a Pandora’s box.”

“What happens if we don’t support this?” said Commissioner Dan Morris (R).

“It would be a very awkward situation,” Sparling said. “That ship has sailed.”

The commissioners asked for a copy of the case proceedings from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which originated in Queen Anne’s County.

“Applications for gravel mining have gone way down lately,” Shire said.

Commissioner Cindy Jones (R) noted that Bill Hunt, the new deputy director of land use and growth management, was in the audience. “Welcome Mr. Hunt to Maryland politics. The state takes away local autonomy to deal with these issues,” she said.

In his previous work in Florida and Illinois, Hunt said, “you have the same kind of conflicts between state and local” governments.