Out and About (Sort Of): Enough Already by Howard Freedlander

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It appears that the tortuous saga of the proposed Four Seasons community in Chester on Kent Island soon will come to an end.

A decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals to refer the proposed development to the Board of Public Works, which first acted on the project in 2007, may finally bring to conclusion more than a decade of litigation and contention.

When I served as a deputy treasurer and liaison to the Board of Public Works (BPW) during Act I in Annapolis, the issue, on the surface, was an easy one, overlaid however with complexity prompted by organized opposition to a proposed development catering to senior citizens. While the BPW, one of the most powerful public groups in the state, was being asked to vote on wetlands issues related to storm drainage, opponents understood that its only resort to killing the project was by persuading the BPW to disapprove the wetlands licenses.

The meeting, which resembled a zoning hearing, lasted for hours as Governor Martin O’Malley, Treasurer Nancy Kopp, and Comptroller Peter Franchot heard exhausting testimony from opponents and proponents alike. When the board finally voted, the governor and comptroller voted in opposition, while the treasurer voted in favor.

The developer, K. Hovnanian, appealed the BPW decision to Queen Anne’s County Circuit Court, which ruled that the decision rendered by the board, was based, if I recall correctly, on what the court viewed as faulty reasoning used by O’Malley and Franchot. This decision came shortly before I retired in May 2011.

I do not pretend to know all the machinations that have occurred during the past four years, a process that now brings to the fore the question of whether a valuable, environmentally sensitive waterfront property should become a quality housing development. For opponents and proponents, the question really comes down to this: should this property be developed?

Hovnanian has spent an ungodly amount of money designing plans, redesigning plans and litigating on the county and state levels. The company signed a legally defensible development agreement with Queen Anne’s County. It fulfilled every requirement imposed by the Maryland Department of Environment. One wonders why this firm, enduring endless twists and turns, simply didn’t throw in the towel and save a large amount of money spent on attorneys’ fees.

Opponents justifiably want to preserve a pristine piece of property so close to the Chesapeake Bay. Kent Island already has enough traffic congestion it needs no more, according to the opponents. The fear of additional pollution is a real one.

I am torn.

On the one hand, the developer has jumped through every hoop imaginable in gaining approval for a project scaled down considerably from its original plan submitted many years ago. Rejection of this project would virtually signal to real estate developers and business people that doing business in Maryland is an undertaking fraught with unpredictability. Maybe that perception exists regardless of the outcome of this imbroglio.

Unless changes have occurred allowing the Maryland Department of Environment not only to exact obedience to a checklist but to determine whether a project is environmentally sensible, I wonder if the Board of Public Works can deny wetlands permits based on broader concerns.

As an administrative body, can it decide the wetlands licenses and hence the viability of the project? Can each member, individually elected, vote, however each wishes, on the broader issue: should the project be built and potentially cause environmental damage as well as more traffic congestion/

In St. Michaels, opposition raged several years ago about the proposed development of Miles Point, another lovely waterfront property that caused residents heartburn about an upscale development that would dump more traffic on the often congested St. Michaels Road. The project didn’t happen— because a wealthy person bought the property from the developer and determined it would remain undeveloped.

My guess is that a solution of this type was investigated by opponents of Four Seasons, with no angel in sight to remove the property from development.

As someone who has ranted about uncontrolled development in Middletown and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, I find myself—devoid of current information during the past four years—sympathetic to Hovnanian for persistence and the opponents for fighting to preserve a property untouched by construction amid the heavily populated Kent Island.

This battle, fought too many times in court, needs to end.

Enough is enough.

Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis, and Philadelphia.

Letters to Editor

  1. To the Chestertown Spy:

    From Jay Falstad, Executive Director, Queen Anne’s Conservation Association

    In Out and About (Sort Of): Enough Already (June 23), your columnist Howard Freedlander hopes fervently that a recent decision of Maryland’s highest court will soon bring an end to “the tortuous saga” of Four Seasons on Kent Island. Mr. Freedlander is almost certain to be disappointed.
    The Court decision, handed down on June 3, came in a case in which the developer K. Hovnanian was trying to force the Board to issue a wetlands license for the project, the largest proposed subdivision in Maryland Critical Area history. The Board had put the license on hold while it tried to deal with the revelation that the developer’s lead lawyer before the Board was also the family lawyer for, and a co-trustee with, the Board’s Wetlands Administrator, who was charged with making an “independent evaluation” of the license application.
    The Court rejected Hovnanian’s claim that the obvious ethical problem didn’t matter and instead has allowed the Board to continue its efforts to purge the record of the taint created by the close relationship between the applicant’s lawyer and the Board’s principal staff member (who quickly retired after the disclosure of the relationship).
    Unless Hovnanian now gives up on its project, as it should have done long ago, the Board is faced with the fact that everything that has occurred before it on Four Seasons since as early as August of 2010 is infected by its former Wetlands Administrator’s conflict of interest.
    Where the former Wetlands Administrator went along with a truncated application process and helped conceal from the public key features like the storm water management plan, now the Board is likely to want a proper process with careful environmental review and genuine transparency. That will naturally take some time.
    And, by the way, the current wetlands license application is not the end of the story, as Mr. Freedlander seems to think. Hovnanian has received from the County nothing more than a non-final approval of only the first, small phase of its project. When and if that approval becomes final, the Kent Island neighbors opposing the project, with the support of Queen Anne’s Conservation Association, will have a hearing before the County’s Board of Appeals to consider the flawed traffic study for the project and the incompatibility of its 20 high-rise units with the surrounding neighborhood. After that, further judicial proceedings could follow – and there are the subsequent three major phases of the project still to be reviewed and licensed.
    Four Seasons was originally sold to the County as a much smaller golf course community. When, behind closed doors, it was later tripled in size (and the golf course dropped), the County Commissioners who connived at this were all voted out of office – but then as lame ducks made an agreement with Hovnanian that tied the hands of their successors to prevent them from reducing or stopping the project!
    Four Seasons as a 1000+ unit project has never had any legitimacy whatsoever in Queen Anne’s County, and citizens will never stop opposing it in its present form.
    Sorry, Mr. Friedlander, the end is not yet in sight.

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