Kent Island Development: Approval Too Soon Or Too Late?

Aug 13, 2013

It was just another muggy day out on the Chesapeake Bay when a sudden thunder storm signaled to yachtsman Mike Weddell that there could be trouble back at the Mears Point Marina on Kent Narrows.  “Looks like it’s high tide out there right now, with the rain and the wind coming straight from the south, pushing right up the Bay,” Weddell told his passengers. “We’re probably going to flood this afternoon.”

As owner of a yacht repair business, Weddell and his marina neighbors have learned to expect serious flooding up to 12 times a year since Hurricane Isabel wreaked havoc in 2003.  Products at the canvas store are piled high on cinder blocks. Weddell’s staff is trained to quickly hoist everything in his shop onto picnic tables.

Yet as sea levels rise and climate change roils the weather, doubts grow about a huge condo community planned for a waterfront site nearby. Could the more than 2,000 residents—age 55 and over—respond as well in emergencies, especially with only one road out?

At a recent hearing on the Four Seasons project before the state Board of Public Works, Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, asked essentially: what are these people thinking? “Just as the Chesapeake Bay is starting to get better, we’re talking about putting a development of over 1,000 units into the critical area,” Baker said. “It’s called the critical area for a reason.  It is in an area that is most likely going to be flooded, and probably more likely to be flooded as we go forward.”

The public works board, led by Governor Martin O’Malley, voiced similar alarm at further burdening a narrow evacuation route that could be blocked if the Bay Bridge is shut down. “I think most of us are pretty well on record that we don’t think any more houses should be going on Kent Island,” O’Malley said.

But in Queen Anne’s County, which includes Kent Island, officials see the issue differently: they borrowed money a decade ago to upgrade a sewage treatment plant for Kent Island and they need customers to pay for it. Steve Arentz, president of the county commissioners, said the plant now has well over a million gallons of unused sewer capacity thanks to an effort that was intended to meet environmental concerns.

Homes on the southern end of the gateway island to Maryland’s Eastern Shore depend on old septic tanks that regularly dump pollution into the bay. Thus, new growth has been channeled to the north end of the island where the plant upgrade was undertaken with the Four Seasons development in mind. “The type of growth we are looking at makes a lot more sense because they really don’t have any impact on our school system--and they have a tremendous impact on the tax dollars that we will be receiving,” Arentz said.

O’Malley’s power to stop the project is unclear. The Court of Appeals has ruled that the O’Malley-led board over-stepped when it rejected a wetlands permit for the project in 2007, despite state agency approvals.

But there are environmental concerns other than sewers. On a sunny day aboard Weddell’s boat, Jay Falstad of the Queen Anne’s County Conservation Association, was pointing out the Four Seasons tract when a bald eagle soared from this rare bit of unspoiled landscape. “A lot of these decisions were made before the county and the state had a real understanding of the environmental impact that sort of development would have on the river and on the bay.  So, it’s just kind of a culmination of bad decisions.”

With at least one more decision to come.