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Board wants new look at why properties can continue building on eroding land


Staff writer

The county commissioners questioned this week why development along Calvert’s cliffs is still permitted, after reviewing the county’s existing policies for such development.

Calvert County environmental principal planner David Brownlee briefed the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday on the county’s existing regulations and policy for development along Calvert’s cliffs. He said the presentation was meant for background information for when the Calvert County Cliff Stabilization Advisory Committee presents the commissioners with its report, findings and recommendations later this month.

“I think we really need to look at our regulations and be careful about what’s permitted that may contribute to the erosion,” Commissioner Susan Shaw (R) said. During the discussion, Shaw repeatedly said the county may want to “take a look” at the policies.

Throughout Calvert, there are numerous homes and roads located along the cliffs. Earlier this year, 10 cliff homes deemed to be in imminent danger received a home buyout grant totaling more than $5 million. As of Wednesday afternoon, nine of the 10 homes have gone to settlement and been acquired by the county. Seven have been demolished, and demolition began on two more this week.

In addition to discussing existing regulations, Brownlee told the commissioners that from now on, anyone wishing to develop along the cliffs is required to sign a liability waiver.

In 1997, the county adopted its cliff policy and regulations establishing three levels of priority for cliff preservation. The policy calls for development setbacks that would allow at least 50 years of erosion without property damage. Any buildings within that setback are required to be moveable structures, and developers must provide stormwater management to reduce erosion, according to the policy.

For each level of priority for cliff preservation, the setback is either a set number, such as 300 feet, or the sum of a particular property’s erosion rate multiplied by 50 years. The policy requires the higher of the two numbers to be the development setback for that particular piece of property. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources provides several coastal atlases on its website that can help a property owner determine their property’s erosion rate, Brownlee said.

In the first level of priority for cliff preservation, which mostly includes reserved land, development is required to have at least a 300-foot setback. No shore erosion control is permitted at this level.

The second priority level, including properties in Scientists’ Cliffs, Chesapeake Ranch Estates, Little Cove Point and Camp Roosevelt, the setback is at least 200 feet from the cliff’s edge. Shore erosion control is permitted in this level, but only for existing structures.

Most cliff properties along the Patuxent River and any cliff properties not included in levels 1 and 2, Brownlee said, compose the third level of priority for cliff preservation. The setback in this level is at least 100 feet and shore erosion control is permitted.

The policy permits that if the base, or toe, of the cliff on a property is greater than 100 feet from the mean high water line, then the minimum development setback for that property from the edge of the cliff is 60 feet.

For properties with existing shore erosion control, the setback is equal to 1.5 multiplied by the cliff’s height plus 20 feet.

Brownlee said many of the to-be-developed cliff properties in the county aren’t large enough for these setbacks, so those property owners must go to the Board of Appeals for a variance to have their setbacks reduced.

“I really don’t understand why we’re still allowing development to occur with a variance close to cliffs when we know that it’s not going to work ultimately,” Shaw said.

Commissioner Evan Slaughenhoupt (R) said if the setback requirements can’t be met, “doesn’t that imply, then, those lots you can’t construct on? Rather than granting a waiver, or variance, you have to say, ‘No. You can’t construct.’ Is that part of the process as well?”

Brownlee explained the decision is ultimately left up to the board of appeals.

Slaughenhoupt said he would like to see the criteria the board of appeals is using to grant setback variances for development along the cliffs. He said it doesn’t make sense to him why a variance would be permitted when a property will continue to erode.

In other business, the commissioners:

• Unanimously awarded a $1,204,284 contract to Altairis Technology Partners for an evaluation of the current state of the county’s communication system, design for a new communication system and detailed specifications for bidding of a new system, and implementation;

• Unanimously approved four agreements of sale for easement acquisitions for the Hardesty Road right of way at Dalrymple Road improvement project; and

• Unanimously approved to close the public record and approve a $350,000 fiscal 2014 budget adjustment for funds from the Maryland Department of the Environment Water Quality Financing Administration to aid in the construction of a new 750,000-gallon elevated water storage tower, a 10-inch well and water treatment plant for anticipated growth in the Prince Frederick Town Center.