An Evaluation of the Maryland Critical Area Program

December 2003 / Abell Reports / Community Development, Environment

The effects on conservation of resource lands and patterns of development.

On the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, life appears to go on as it has for decades: watermen harvest oysters, sailboats scoot quietly over the swells and recreational fishermen hunt for rockfish. But the tranquil image belies the discouraging reality that the Chesapeake Bay’s health continues to deteriorate.

That deterioration may be difficult for the layman to see, but some of its causes are not. One of the most visible – and most jarring – factors in the Chesapeake’s decline is waterfront development along the Bay and its tributaries – whether it’s secluded mansions with million-dollar views or massive residential projects. On Kent Island, for instance, a development for “active adults” is slated to soon bring more than 1,300 houses and condominiums along 562 scenic areas bordering the Chester River and Cox and Macum creeks.

Both the mansions and the Kent Island development are proceeding under the provisions of an important but sometimes forgotten law enacted nearly 20 years ago by the Maryland General Assembly. In 1984, after intense debate, the legislature passed the landmark Critical Area Act, an early piece of the ongoing effort to protect and improve the water quality of the Bay. Although the measure was designed to rein in and mitigate environmentally destructive waterfront development, it also allowed for projects on thousands of acres of shoreline property, building that will likely continue for many years.

This report attempts to assess the Critical Area Act’s impact and effectiveness nearly two decades later. Making such an assessment is difficult as the law itself sets no quantifiable goals or benchmarks. It’s impossible to know, for instance, how much shoreline development would have happened without the law in place. But certain conclusions are possible. It’s clear that the Act remains an important bulwark in the state of Maryland’s environmental preservation program and an analysis of development trends shows the law has successfully slowed development activity in the most environmentally sensitive shoreline areas.

But it was also a cautious first step that limited the State’s influence to the first 1,000 feet of the tidal shoreline and tempered many of its resource protection rules with exceptions and discretionary language.

While the need to preserve the shoreline remains acute, protecting the state’s remaining, but threatened and dwindling, open space without stifling appropriate economic development remains an unmet goal for state policymakers. Using the Critical Area Act as a model, the state should expand its focus to provide oversight of resource lands throughout Maryland. Such protection is sorely needed and would be the natural next step in the evolution of Maryland’s commitment to balanced development. Expanding the state’s land-use powers will not come without a major political fight. But with both the future of the Bay and the state’s quality of life at stake, Maryland policymakers should make the issue a high priority.