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Little land separates many homes on the cliffs of Calvert from a perilous 70-foot drop into the Chesapeake Bay, but for 10 homeowners, the imminent danger is nearly over thanks to a home buyout program.

“It truly looks like the end of the tunnel is near,” said Sue Davis, a resident whose home is included in the buyout program. “... It seems like everyone got it all together at the same time.”

Davis, who moved into her Lusby waterfront home about 20 years ago with her husband, Brian, said that a few years after moving in they were trying to obtain a permit to install revetment — the large rocks put out to prevent waves crashing against the cliff resulting in erosion. They got the “runaround about permits,” and that’s when they were told about the endangered Puritan tiger beetle that made its home on the eroding cliff, Davis explained.

A longtime coming

In February 2010, Maryland House Minority Leader Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) hosted a town hall meeting to discuss the eroding cliffs and issues residents have encountered trying to protect their homes and property. During the meeting, a federal grant was identified that would allow the purchase of cliff properties identified to be in imminent risk of destruction due to cliff erosion.

“We were kind of behind the scene” on getting the county to pursue the grant, said Ginger Haskell, chairwoman of the Calvert County Cliff Stabilization Advisory Committee. “We pushed the county to take action.”

The CCSAC, which was established by the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners in January 2011, was charged with looking at the processes for applying for shoreline erosion control permits at all levels and to see where the process can be simplified, Haskell said.

Haskell, who is also a cliff dweller and is seeking her own shoreline erosion control for her property, said the committee is not engaged in helping individuals but, rather, looks at how the county could further aid cliff dwellers.

Currently, the CCSAC is “going over everything we’ve done over the last two years ... and pulling it all together” to present it to the BOCC with recommendations, Haskell said. “We’re hoping that independent homeowners will be able to keep their properties from polluting the [Chesapeake] Bay and literally keep their homes from falling into the bay,” she said, adding that the recommendations will “point to things that are happening at the county level to help people help themselves.”

In November 2011, the grant application was completed and included property owners with significant erosion problems. The grant was tentatively approved in February 2012 pending completion of preliminary engineering and follow-up paperwork. Also in February 2012, the homeowners agreed to terms for the buyout.

Engineering assessments were completed and submitted by the homeowners last May, and then submitted to the Maryland Emergency Management Agency in June for final approval by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In early October, FEMA granted final approval for the project. In November, the BOCC signed two memorandums of agreement with MEMA to use FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funds to complete the site engineering work, develop the Erosion Control Plan, provide a scope of work and advertise a request for bid, purchase, demolition and removal of 10 properties identified in those agreements.

In January, the BOCC approved a budget adjustment to include a $5 million grant for the work needed to demolish and remove the 10 houses on the cliffs of Calvert County.

The total value of the FEMA Hazard Mitigation grants is $5,151,588, according to a Jan. 18 memo from Julie Paluda, the county’s capital projects analyst. The approved budget adjustment was for $5,111,588 because $40,000 of the grant was already approved as a budget adjustment for the initial site work in late November.

The memo states that all costs incurred related to the agreements will be fully funded by either the grants or by the property owners. The cost share for this plan, the agreement states, is 75 percent federal and 25 percent non-federal, which means the county will be paying 75 percent of the assessed value of a particular home and that homeowner must pay 25 percent of the costs for items such as demolition.

“It seems like things are positive,” said Tony Vajda, a liaison for the cliff dwellers. “Unfortunately, these things take time.”

John R. “Bobby” Fenwick, county division chief of Emergency Management and Safety, explained that the process took as long as it did because there was “a lot of back and forth” with MEMA and FEMA. And, he said, “figuring out the cost of the project took the better part of a year.”

“Much of this is hurry-up-and-wait,” Fenwick said, adding that the homeowners who have the needed paperwork are being submitted for a notice of intent to disturb “critical area” soil, or environmentally sensitive land protected by state law. The notice of intent process, he said, includes a 30-day public comment period before the Maryland Department of the Environment will make a decision on whether the disturbing of critical area soil is permitted. He explained that after that, a closing date will be administered.

Life along the cliffs

Phyllis Bonfield, a resident in the buyout, said the process was “a learning experience for everyone. But it is moving forward now.”

Bonfield and her roommate, Marcia Siefert, bought their Lusby cliff home in 2000 and moved there permanently in 2004 after they retired. At that point, Bonfield said there was 52 feet between their property and the cliff. Now, Bonfield explained, there is only about 12 feet between the cliff and their deck.

“After living through this, I think Hurricane Isabel in 2003 really accentuated the erosion,” Bonfield said, adding that when trees fell during Isabel, chunks of the cliff fell with them.

Bonfield said she remembers when one tree fell, she watched about 10 feet of land fall off and into the Chesapeake Bay.

“There was more angst than we had anticipated when we retired there,” she said, adding that their time in their cliff home was “an absolutely lovely experience” and they “hated losing our home.”

Before they bought their home, Bonfield said she and Siefert “tried to do our due diligence” about the cliff erosion. She said when they spoke with officials about the erosion, they were told that about 12 to 18 inches will erode each year and that they would be “pretty safe.” But, Bonfield said, “you never know what Mother Nature’s going to do.”

She said she has spoken with many homeowners on the cliffs who tried to do the same before they bought their homes, including some who hired engineers to come and look at the property.

In 2007, after receiving the necessary permits, Bonfield and Siefert installed a nearshore breakwater to help combat the cliff erosion at the base of the cliff. She said the breakwater, made of granite, is like a jetty out in the water but runs parallel to the shoreline and is 30 feet from the base of the cliff in the bay, measuring 165 feet long, 26 feet wide and 5 feet tall.

“It’s the only reason our house is still standing,” Bonfield said.

A bug in the plans

Most of the stalemate over shoreline erosion control stems from the endangered Puritan tiger beetle that calls the eroding cliffs home.

The beetle was federally listed as threatened in 1990, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office’s Puritan tiger beetle webpage.

The beetle is found in only two regions: along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and along the Connecticut River in New England, the webpage states, noting that they occupy “only naturally eroding cliffs, where they live in deep burrows after digging in sandy deposits on nonvegetated portions of the bluff surface or at the base of the cliff.” The beetles are “most abundant” at sites where the bluffs are “long and high” and composed of “yellow and red sandy soil,” according to the webpage.

According to a December 2010 “Applicant Summary Review Process for Projects Involving Puritan Tiger Beetles in Calvert County Portions of the Chesapeake Bay” document from the USFWS, “The high cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay where Puritan tiger beetles occur are rare geological features that represent less than 3 percent of the Bay’s entire shoreline (approximately 11,600 miles).”

The Maryland Puritan Tiger Beetle Habitat Conservation Program document, published by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, states that there are 10 subpopulations of Puritan tiger beetle habitat located along the 23-mile shoreline of Calvert County.

According to the “Studies of Two Rare Tiger Beetles in Maryland, 2011,” published by the Biology Department at Randolph-Macon College in Ashburn, Va., the beetle resides in about seven locations along the cliffs of Calvert County: Little Cove Point, Calvert Cliffs State Park, Western Shores/Calvert Beach, Warrior’s Rest, Scientists Cliffs, Cliffs of Calvert and Flag Ponds.

“[Chesapeake Ranch Estates] is really the stronghold,” Julie Slacum, division chief for USFW Chesapeake Bay Field Office, explained, adding that it’s the area with the highest number of the beetles while also having the highest level of erosion and the most houses.

Slacum said that during a re-evaluation of the tiger beetle, USFWS and Maryland DNR found that some “take” could be permitted, or in other words, a small number of tiger beetles could be sacrificed for revetment purposes. She said there is one multi-revetment project that has been approved in CRE and construction on that is expected to begin in the next month.

Despite the help for 10 residents, there are still many residents who are struggling and anxious about their homes falling into the bay. Vajda, who is also a member of CCSAC, said there are homeowners in CRE who have obtained permits for revetments from the state and are currently trying to get county permits and finish the process so the revetments can be implemented.

However, Slacum said DNR is “not getting a flood of revetment permit requests,” most likely because of the cost for revetments, but she couldn’t say for sure.

Slacum also explained that as part of a $2.8 million grant established in recent years, DNR and USFWS have the ability to purchase conservation easements from property owners along the cliffs. She said they are examining four properties in Calvert County and DNR and USFWS is working with those homeowners.

Those property owners who participate in the conservation easement program are “giving up their rights to shoreline erosion control,” Slacum said. In order to be part of the program, the land has to be a “productive” area for the tiger beetle and the house must be set back from the cliff, she explained.

“The whole buyout scenario has been very exciting,” Slacum said. “Not having that as a tool, it could have been a lot worse” for the homeowners. “It hasn’t been a perfect solution for everyone, but it has helped.”

She explained that USFWS and DNR want to work with the county after the buyout and demolition of the 10 homes to use the land as potential habitat conservations for the tiger beetle.

Looking ahead

Meanwhile, as the final arrangements, settlements and closing dates draw near, the 10 homeowners have to find new homes.

Sue and Brian Davis have already found another waterfront home in Lusby they want to buy but are waiting for a closing date on their current, imperiled home before moving forward. Sue Davis said the new waterfront home won’t be in danger of falling off the cliff — something she and her husband wanted to make sure of this time around.

“As soon as we get [the closing date], we can move on,” she said. “We have to go.”

Davis said when she and her husband first moved into their waterfront home, they “had no idea” and “weren’t told” of the dangerous possibilities that may lie ahead as a result of cliff erosion. When they moved in 20 years ago, there was 60 feet between their home and the edge of the cliff, she said.

“It’s a tragedy here waiting to happen,” Davis said of her home. She said there is less than 40 feet between her home and the edge of the cliff and her neighbors have less than 12 feet, while the homeowners two doors down have a measly 5 feet and their back porch has just been condemned.

Unlike Davis, there are several other cliff homeowners who didn’t wait for the buyout, moved and are now paying two mortgages.

Siefert and Bonfield moved in July 2012 to Elkton because the grant was expected to be completed sooner, and they are now paying double mortgages.

“We’re hoping this will not go on much longer,” Bonfield said.

Fenwick said he wasn’t sure where all 10 of the homeowners were in the process of relocating, but he did know that two already moved and one more has purchased another property but has not moved yet.

He said initially, the county will own the property, but there has been discussion of giving it to nonprofit environmental groups or using it as “open space for CRE.” But no matter what, he said, the properties will not be “utilized for anything but a natural state.”

aharrison@somdnews.com