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"...they are not going to prevail” said Franchot about K. Hovnanian and the Four Seasons project.
June 18, 2007
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Franchot addresses QA conservation group
By ROSE G. SPIK, Staff Writer, Chesapeake Publishing, from The Star Democrat, June 21, 2007
STEVENSVILLE — The federal and state government has “lots of money” available to local jurisdictions in order save precious natural resources from development, said Maryland State Comptroller Peter Franchot, and he is willing to help find these funds to protect Queen Anne’s County.
Franchot was the guest speaker at a meeting hosted by Queen Anne’s County Conservation Association at the Kent Island library Monday evening.
Franchot talked about the role of the state Board of Public Works and his role in government, as well as the recent denial of the wetlands permit for the Four Seasons at Kent Island project.
“It was refreshing and encouraging that our elected officials took time to hear us,” said Jay Falstad, executive director of Queen Anne’s Conservation Association. It was an “historic moment” when the Board of Public Works denied the permit to developer K. Hovnanian, said Falstad.
The Board of Public Works is made up of Franchot, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Gov. Martin O’Malley. On May 23, the trio voted 2-1 to reject the wetlands permit sought by K. Hovnanian, just a few days after they visited the site (KIDL note: Their visit was May 18th). Kopp voted for the permit. K. Hovnanian has since appealed the decision and on June 1 filed a petition for judicial review in Queen Anne’s County Circuit Court.
“Our comptroller, in my judgement, took his role seriously,” said Falstad, and his courageous vote to help save the Chesapeake Bay is to be commended.
“It’s not very often a new comptroller gets elected in Maryland,” joked Franchot, referring to the longevity of the late Louis Goldstein and his opponent in the recent election, William Donald Schaefer.
Franchot said he tries to follow the lead of both men, Goldstein for maintaining his integrity and independence, and Schaefer for his devotion to the state. “I also want to be myself. I guess I am a liberal Democrat, but with the toxicity of politics we don’t recognize what that means anymore,” he said.
Putting Maryland on the path to becoming the “greenest state in the Union,” is one of his big goals while in office, said Franchot, who praised Queen Anne’s County for its green schools; Matapeake Elementary, Matapeake Middle and Kent Island Elementary.
“You really are leading the way with the geo-thermal heating and cooling of schools … it’s not only wonderful for the environment, but it saves about 80 percent on monthly utility bills,” said Franchot.
Franchot said he also would like to see Maryland become a center for the study of life sciences. With so many facilities in the area including Johns Hopkins, the National Institutes of Health and several biotech centers, there is no reason why Maryland can’t be a leader in the field, he said.
“Four Seasons is a wonderful photo of why the Bay is dying,” said Franchot, but huge development in critical areas is just one aspect of the big picture. “It goes side by side with bad agricultural practices, golf courses, lawn care … and the Bay dies,” he said.
“It’s not anti-development and we’re not being hostile to farmers … it’s whether or not we are serious about the health of the Bay,” he said.
“I don’t think they are going to prevail; let me put that differently — they are not going to prevail,” said Franchot about K. Hovnanian and the Four Seasons project. Franchot said the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners should be proud of their efforts in acquiring the Philip Davidson Farm, 94 acres which will be used for ball fields and preserved open space. Half of the $3.2 million is covered by the county and the other half by the Department of Natural Resources’ Open Space Program. “That was really a good decision for Queen Anne’s County,” he said.
Kent Island resident Brian Wright asked Franchot what could be done when K. Hovnanian comes back with a redesigned project and “scales it down and reforms it as an environmentally friendly project.”
“We have to buy the property so they (K. Hovnanian) don’t come out as losers … what can we do?”
Franchot said state funds, like those that bought the Davidson farm, and federal funds are out there for just this purpose and assured the crowd that he would help them find the money if it came to that.
“The public is slow to awaken, but they are holding our feet to the fire,” said Franchot.
Kent Island win provides model for local activists
To launch opposition to a development planned for your neighborhood, you need three things: time, passion, and sympathy from someone in public office.
All three ingredients came together for a group of highly motivated activists who waged a seven-year fight against a 1,350-unit development that would have consumed about 370 areas of Critical Area on Kent Island.
As of now, the activists' persistence seems to have paid off. When all seemed lost, the state Board of Public Works - specifically, two of its three members, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot - dealt Four Seasons' developer a setback by rejecting a wetlands permit.
The developer could still win in court, on appeal. But the citizen involvement shows what can be accomplished by people determined to defend the environment. Mr. Franchot said the opponents' passion and depth of knowledge spurred him to vote against the wetlands permit.
After the original project nearly tripled in size, island residents - including housewives, small businessmen and building contractors - formed the Kent Island Defense League. They initially got little support from their county commissioners, who approved Four Seasons - and, in the next election, got drummed out of office for it.
But even with the arrival of new and more sympathetic elected officials, the activists were unable to undo the previous commissioners' decisions. And the new commissioners - with Mike Koval and Gene Ransom wisely voting against - signed a legal agreement with the developer requiring them to remain publicly silent about the project.
That silence, ironically, surely contributed to the project's defeat. The Board of Public Works was perturbed about being denied the input of the local governing body. But it was the diehard activists who stepped in and eventually convinced Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Franchot. So the state listened when local elected officials did not.
There are lessons from this:
Never give up on a cause you believe is right. Help can come from unexpected sources. It wasn't the commissioners, or local legislators like Del. Dick Sossi and state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who stopped the project. It was elected officials who don't even live on Kent Island, but saw the potential environmental damage from such a large project.
It's foolish for elected officials to sign gag orders. This is an abdication of their responsibility to speak for the people they were elected to represent. How can they do that job when they have to remain silent at the most crucial time?
There were too many activists involved in this seven-year battle to mention them without the risk of omitting someone. But collectively they should be acknowledged for plugging away and making a huge investment of time, despite long odds against their success. Even if the state's decision to deny the wetlands permit is overturned, the example they set means that their efforts were not in vain.
Published June 20, 2007,
The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Contrary to this headline – this is not over by any means. Very important to come to the Kent Island Library this evening – Monday, 6/18, 6:30 to 8 p.m., to meet Comptroller Franchot. Don’t miss it!
How to fight developer
They come from jobs as disparate as construction and the music business. Some have been active in politics for years and others jumped into the political realm because they saw it as the only way to preserve their pastoral lifestyle.
And once engaged, they managed to bring to a screeching halt the ambitious development plans of a national builder with an army of lawyers.
They also convinced the most powerful officials in Maryland their cause is just.
State Comptroller Peter Franchot said the perseverance and passion of those residents was a deciding factor in the recent Board of Public Works' decision to reject a wetlands permit for K. Hovnanian Co.'s 1,350-unit Four Seasons development on Kent Island.
"The advocates against the project were well represented, well briefed, and impressive," he said. "Knowledge is power. And they had a lot of knowledge on their side."
Although faced with discouraging odds -"Discouraging is a mild word," said Burt Jamison, who has run the Kent Island Defense League's Web site since 2000 - some residents found the effort to be rejuvenating.
For Jack Broderick, a member of KIDL who was on the original board, the increasing development on the island makes him feel like the American Indian in the famous television commercial decrying the poor treatment of the environment.
"I've shed a couple tears like that," he said. "I feel a sense of possible sadness, but to me it just recharges my battery."
Despite the long hours of meetingsand votes that didn't go their way, the large expanses of wetlands and creeks available for fishing and crabbing are worth fighting for, he said.
Mr. Broderick, 62, has spent the past 31 years living on Kent Island. Before retiring from the Defense Department in 2001, he would often bookend his work trips to states as far away as California and Alaska with meetings on the Four Seasons project.
Sitting in a boat and watching the sun set near his home was a "real blessing" that provided relief from his hectic life, Mr. Broderick said.
"This wonderful Eastern Shore, the quality of life, is worth my passion and my personal energy," he said. "There are constant challenges. But it's still a wonderful place to live."
Four Seasons is not the only problem on Kent Island, Mr. Broderick said, but it is a "big piece of a very large pie." K. Hovnanian's work is emblematic of the growth that endangers the pleasures of living near the Chesapeake Bay, he said.
The extent of that growth was revealed in a recent report by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation group, which stated about 160,000 acres will be developed in the area by 2030.
That rate of growth would
almost equal the amount of development that occurred between 1907 and 2007.
Growth is too often seen as inevitable, Mr. Etgen said, and he believes local governments have to step up to counter the traditional way of thinking.
"I don't think anybody on
the Eastern Shore accepts it," he said.
Mr. Ransom, 35, has spent his entire life in Queen Anne's County, and recalls a time when a community of farmers and watermen knew everyone who lived around them.
"One of the fears is we are changing into a suburban county. The people here don't want that," he said. "There's something special about this place."
Concerned Kent Island residents, frustrated by the potential environmental and infrastructure impacts of Four Seasons, began to come together when public meetings were held about the project in 1999.
When plans were first floated for the property that takes up about 370 acres of Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, they were much smaller, Mr. Broderick said. Representatives of the site's original developer, Domain Builders, had presented concepts to community advocacy organizations before being absorbed by K. Hovnanian in 1999.
That outline showed only about 400 homes, a golf course and plenty of open space, said Mr. Broderick, who was a member of the Chester Citizen Advocacy Committee.
But once that company was taken in by K. Hovnanian, he said, the project exploded with plans for up to 1,500 homes. "It just warranted a much different approach," Mr. Broderick said.
In 2000, two separate opposition groups, WeSayNo and Citizens Against Rezoning the Environment formed KIDL to lobby against the large development.
"This smelled bad from the beginning," said Mike Koval, an original member of KIDL. "We just couldn't believe the size, the scope."
Once formed, KIDL tried to bring the project to the eyes of Kent Island residents, using flyers, e-mails, and petition drives to reach thousands of people.
Members would huddle together at each other's homes, at the local library, and even in the back room of the Island Inn.
Focussed more on strategy than socialization, KIDL became a grassroots think tank aimed at turning away the blueprints and bulldozers.
The core mission was simply educating people about what was happening in their community, said Nancy Koval, who ran an e-mail list of about 600 people and is married to Mike.
"That was pretty much our
whole goal," Mrs. Koval said. "(The project) was just so under the radar."
But Four Seasons and development in general were the biggest reasons Mr. Koval, who works in construction, became a county commissioner from 2002 to 2006.
The decision to run was sudden,
he said. "It just looked like a developer's ticket," Mr. Koval said.
For some, however, the fight
has been a reason to leave the community they loved.
An adjoining property owner
to Four Seasons, Mr. Moser was president of KIDL from 2000 to 2004.
The trials of Four Seasons should not be misconstrued as a story of residents fighting developers, Mr. Moser said. Rather, the project is indicative of how, even with small odds of success, residents have a duty to fight for their quality of life, he said.
"The government is supposed to do the right thing for us," he said. "(But) the cards were all stacked against the citizens."
Published June 17, 2007,
The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
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