February 14, 2010

Eastern Shore legislators say “inflexible” Environment Department hurting job growth

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By Natalie Neumann
Natalie@MarylandReporter.com

Lawmakers from the Eastern Shore clashed with the Secretary of the Environment Shari Wilson on Friday, calling her agency “inflexible” and a hindrance to job growth in farming and other industries in their area.

At a joint Eastern Shore delegation meeting with Wilson and Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance, the senators and delegates said environmental regulations on chicken houses, stormwater and septic systems are slowing down or halting projects in their counties.

Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Lower Shore Republican, said investors wanted to build 30 chicken houses on the Eastern Shore, but the department didn’t let them.

“The people that wanted to work hard to raise food for our country were stopped and they’ve lost spirit and they’re no longer requesting funding to build chicken houses,” Stoltzfus said with frustration.

Stoltzfus said the Department of Agriculture is dominated by the Department of the Environment on rules about disposing of animal waste and dead livestock.

Raising chickens and processing them for sale is a billion-dollar business on the Shore.

Listing the department’s priorities as public health, water quality and healthy air, Wilson said the agency will try to be flexible with regulations, but the delegation seemed skeptical.

Del. Norman Conway, a Salisbury Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said he’s frustrated that regulations are holding up agricultural projects.

“I hope the country does not get hungry to understand the significance of agriculture,” said Conway.

At the suggestion of Del. Jim Mathias, a Democrat, the delegation plans to write a letter to Gov. Martin O’Malley and try to meet with him, emphasizing the importance of agriculture on the Eastern Shore. Mathias said O’Malley had helped on similar issues in the past.

Republican Sen. Richard Colburn from Cambridge believes “river keepers,” environmentalists who watch over particular waterways, are dictating business on the Eastern Shore. He compared them to watermelons: “green on the outside and red or socialist on the inside.”

Colburn said petitioning by the river keepers has slowed important projects, like putting a geothermal energy system in a high school.

“These river keepers can’t bring Maryland to a standstill and that’s what they’re doing,” said Colburn.

Wilson said she receives complaints and lawsuits from both sides, and said the petitions to the department don’t bring anything to a halt.

Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, an Easton Republican, said if that’s true, there’s a communication problem in the department.

Haddaway said every time she calls on behalf of a constituent who tries to get a permit, like one for shoreline protection, “the answer always comes back that ‘We have to evaluate all these other factors because we have all these accusations and all these pressures from the water keepers.’ ”

Secretary Wilson said a required public comment session can slow the process, but lawmakers countered that some projects had already received permits and yet been forced to undergo additional hearings.

Expressing concerns heard from all over Maryland, the Eastern Shore legislators raised questions about new stormwater regulations and what project approvals could be grandfathered under older regulations. The delegation wanted to see better defined rules of what can be built under old regulations.

Wilson said the department will soon issue “guidance” to local jurisdictions on how to implement the new rules.

She said delaying implementation of the new regulations, as some developers and legislators have proposed, only pushes the problem of dealing with stormwater pollution to a later date.

While she said she’ll try to be flexible, it is the department’s role to “implement rules the best way we can. We have to move forward the best we can.”