Hospitality businesses that want to build or expand construction on their Baltimore County waterfront properties could soon be exempt from state waterway protection regulations, per legislation under the County Council’s consideration.

An attorney with a nonprofit that’s focused on restoring the Chesapeake Bay’s health says the proposed bill flouts Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Protection law, designed to prevent additional runoff — and other pollution — from flowing into the nation’s largest estuary.

Introduced by Democratic Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, the bill would mandate the county’s Environmental Protection and Sustainability director approve permits for new construction and additions at marinas and restaurants serving alcohol that operate along the coastline of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

The bill would allow those developers to build “up to the edge of the water” — a major departure from setback regulations adopted by other municipalities and state waterway protection laws. Current regulations prohibit localities from approving development within 100 feet of tidal wetlands and tributary streams’ edge unless the applicant can meet stringent provisions for an exception.

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And it would exempt waterfront restaurant owners from mitigation requirements, such as planting trees, meant to offset the environmental impact of adding new impervious surfaces, such as concrete, within 1,000 feet of the bay and protected waterways. Exempting some waterfront property owners from setback and mitigation requirements entirely would make Baltimore County unique among the state’s 24 jurisdictions.

Under current law, developers who can’t meet critical area mitigation requirements are charged a fee that is used on waterway restoration initiatives. It’s unclear if the proposed bill would waive those fees.

“I’m scratching my head over how they think they’re gonna do this,” said Jon Mueller, vice president of litigation at the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“It violates state law,” Mueller said, adding that he can’t recall any other Maryland jurisdiction attempting to circumvent critical area laws with such exemptions.

“I’d be pretty surprised if it passed,” he said.

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At the time it was approved by the General Assembly in 1984, the critical area law only permitted land owners to replace existing structures near the waterfront with new buildings utilizing the same footprint, unless the local government granted an exemption. But since the law’s passage, local governments have adjusted the requirements with the Critical Area Commission’s approval.

Eastern Baltimore County, which includes Bevins’ district, has a slew of waterfront restaurants within the critical area. Some of them — such as Bowleys on the Bay in Bowleys Quarters, Carson’s Creekside Restaurant in Middle River and Tiki Lee’s Dock Bar in Sparrows Point — have been seeking permits to build accessory structures.

Republican Councilman David Marks, a member of the Critical Area Commission who is running for reelection to represent parts of Bevins’ district, said there needs to be “balance” between the interests of business owners that have created “proven destinations for thousands of people every day” and “the need to preserve the integrity of the waterfront.”

Protecting vegetation within a 100-foot buffer of the bay and its streams is a “keystone” of the state’s Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Protection Program to preserve nature resources, according to the Critical Area Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays. The commission was formed to adopt regulations under the Critical Area Act and is now charged with upholding the law by reviewing certain projects and, less often, locally-proposed policy changes that could impact the critical area.

If the bill is approved, it can’t be implemented without the approval of the Critical Area Commission. Kate Charbonneau, the commission’s executive director, declined to comment on the proposal since the commission hasn’t formally reviewed it.

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Asked what factors the commission considers while reviewing local policy changes, Charbonneau said “it goes back to the goals of the law.”

“We’re looking at mitigating impacts to water quality, mitigating impacts to wildlife habitat, plant habitat, and balancing development while maintaining those other resources of the bay,” she said.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. — who has committed millions of dollars to preserve natural resources and reduce greenhouse gasses emitted by government operations during his first term — wants to support “waterfront businesses that contribute to our local economy ... without significant environmental impact,” said communications director Dori Henry in a statement.

“We look forward to working with Councilwoman Bevins to ensure that any legislation that moves forward addresses both of these priorities,” Henry said.

Bevins, who is not running for reelection, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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The council is scheduled to discuss the bill at its Aug. 30 meeting.

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Taylor DeVille covered Baltimore County government for The Baltimore Banner with a focus on the County Executive, County Council, accountability and quality of life issues affecting suburban residents. Before joining The Banner, Taylor covered Baltimore County government and breaking news for The Baltimore Sun.

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