After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

“Death by a Thousand Cuts”: Chesapeake Bay’s Disappearing Shoreline

(This is the first in a series of reviews of notable films that we feel should be part of any card-carrying environmental activist’s toolkit. We’ve chosen films that we think have made an important contribution to understanding the challenges facing restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. We kick off with a look back at Michael English’s 2008 gem, “Weary Shoreline.” -Eds.)

(Posted by John D. Wickham.)

Weary ShorelineCoastal Maryland, encompassing the state’s capital, Annapolis, the counties of Anne Arundel, Talbot, and Dorchester, and still other areas, is one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the United States, whose rivers and tributaries feed into the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay. Though picturesque, this border area where land and sea meet has been under relentless pressure from human population growth and real estate development in the last three decades. Estimates put Southern Maryland’s loss of forest cover at more than 160,000 acres in the last fifteen years.

Despite the efforts of legislators, government officials, scientists, and environmental activists, Maryland’s coastal areas continue to face ongoing – and increasing – pressure from illegal and ecologically damaging real estate construction in so-called “critical” areas, which lie within 100 and 1,000 feet of the shore. As the excellent documentary “Weary Shoreline” (2008) makes clear, the failure of the well-intentioned 1984 Maryland Critical Area Law to limit shoreline development has resulted in declining water quality in rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, and has allowed escalating efforts to build in forested buffer areas along the water’s edge.

How has this come about? To understand, it helps if one starts by examining what the Critical Area Law intended. As “Weary Shoreline” explains, the aim of the law was threefold: 1) protect water quality; 2) conserve shoreline habitat; and 3) accommodate future growth. The law does not, according to the film, eliminate landowners’ rights to build, but instead offers guidance on how to do so without harming the environment. It seeks to accomplish this by preventing the cutting of trees and the clearing of brush within 1,000 feet of the shore. The law also prevents all construction within 100 feet of the shore, unless a variance is obtained.

What’s at stake? As scientists and activists in “Weary Shoreline” point out, preserving forest cover and preventing construction on soils near the shoreline helps stop sediments, oil, and other harmful pollutants from draining into rivers and tributaries that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Soil sediment, for example, clouds river water, blocking light to underwater grasses, in turn retarding their growth. Without underwater grasses, crabs are deprived of critical habitat where their young can nurse and grow safely to adulthood. Soil sediment can also cover oysters, preventing the bivalves from taking in and filtering water, which in turn harms their health.

Scientists in the film highlight other environmental harms from expanding real estate development, including a decline in the overall diversity of animal life (e.g., birds and fish) near the shoreline. Indeed, according to Dennis Whigham of the Smithsonian Environmental Resource Center, a contributing author of the 2006 EPA study Integration of Ecological and Socioeconomic Indicators for Estuaries and Watersheds of the Atlantic Slope (PDF), the relationship between increasing real estate development and declining wildlife diversity in coastal Maryland “jumped out at us.” Whigham concluded that “scientifically, the message is fairly clear.”

Why has the Critical Area Law been unable to prevent growing environmental harm? Anne Merwin, an attorney serving in a law clinic at the University of Maryland in 2008, set out to answer just this question, studying three years of records under the measure. She learned that the law itself does not provide for state-level enforcement of violations to its provisions. Instead, it places enforcement authority in the hands of local jurisdictions, which, Merwin found, lack financial resources and manpower as well as the political will to implement the law. A classic trade-off arises at the local level, Merwin explains, between the public’s interest in clean water, on one hand, and individual landowners’ rights, on the other. Such opposing interests are inevitable, but are made more difficult under the Critical Area Law, Merwin points out, since it grandfathers structures built prior to 1984, exempting them from the act’s restrictions on how construction should occur. As a result, when current landowners identify shoreline to build on, they see pre-existing structures within the 100- and 1,000-foot zones, and feel entitled to build within the same area.

Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, who also appears in the film, believes that the town of Benedict in Charles County offers a case study of what is occurring. Benedict used to be known as a seafood capital, but now, according to Tutman, would be better described as a “real estate capital” and a recreational boating area. Tutman points out that crab harvests near the town are at an historic low, and that neither crabs nor oysters can find enough oxygen in the silted, muddied water.

The film explains that the Critical Area Law was supposed to provide guidance to local governments, but that the monetary gains that new housing and construction provide in the form of new taxes, higher county revenues, and local jobs usually prove too great to resist. Moreover, it is precisely in the local jurisdictions, at the water’s edge, where development pressure is greatest.

Anne Arundel County, for instance, is home to the state capital, Annapolis, which in turn is just a one-hour drive from Baltimore or Washington, D.C. In addition, there are 530 miles of tidal shoreline in the county, giving it more critical area than most counties in Maryland. In 2007, more than 1,100 new building sites were established in Anne Arundel, with an estimated value of $192,000,000 in construction costs. What’s more, the value of waterfront properties there continues to rise, as much as five-fold in some cases in the last twenty years.

Overall, “Weary Shoreline” is an excellent introduction to an urgent problem with many facets. Though one might at times wish for a slightly clearer explanation of the natural processes at work in the Bay (e.g., distinction between shoreline development, which deposits soil sediment and stormwater runoff, and agricultural and poultry operations, which introduce nitrogen and phosphorous), as well as more background on the legal battles surrounding property rights, development restrictions, and “regulatory takings” (whereby local governments are required to compensate landowners when they prevent them from developing their properties), these are small shortcomings. What one gains, in abundance, is a quick overview of the problem (including beautiful aerial shots of the Chesapeake Bay), as well as numerous direct interviews with stakeholders on all sides of the problem, thus ensuring a balanced and fair treatment of a complicated collective dilemma.

The film would be excellent for use in upper-level high school classes, undergraduate classes in environmental science or policy, and graduate and law school classes in regional planning and environmental law and policy. Such broad dissemination in schools, in fact, might give Maryland and its citizens a better chance of anticipating and responding to future growth challenges.

Paul Spadero, President of the Magothy River Association, who advocates for greater limits on shoreline development throughout the film, is the one who describes the Chesapeake Bay shoreline as having grown “weary” from thousands of cuts. In response, he urges that a new ethic be adopted, one that doesn’t treat fragile shoreline property as an “inexhaustible commodity.” Given that experts have estimated that as many as one million new residents will move into the area in the next twenty years, this sounds like an idea worth listening to.

Click here to buy a copy of “Weary Shoreline” from Maryland Public Television.

Weary Shoreline (©2008)
Produced by Robin Lloyd
Directed by Michael English
Funded by The Keith Campbell Foundation
Aired on Maryland Public Television (MPT)

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