More to cliff troubles than tiny insects

Beyond beetle, challenges remain for cliff dwellers

Friday, Feb. 19, 2010

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary's) and hundreds of residents who live along the cliffs of Calvert County hope that Saturday's community meeting with state and county officials serves as a positive step toward reconciliation between those trying to save their property from shoreline erosion and legislation protecting the endangered Puritan tiger beetle.

But while the beetle issue may be the most imposing and heavily publicized of challenges faced by the "cliff dwellers," it isn't the only one. Any compromise over the beetles would simply give owners of the eroding properties a chance to apply and pay for shoreline erosion control projects.

The varying geology along the shore would require a comprehensive plan that worked for all property owners and not a blanket solution that might help some and harm others, said Tony Vajda of Lusby. Retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vajda has served as an unofficial spokesman, government liaison, bookkeeper and legal counsel for the Chesapeake Ranch Estates community for the last 15 years. His property is one of about 90 others in the community that sits atop cliffs bordering the Chesapeake Bay, some as high as 100 feet. Further north along the shore, dozens of property owners in several, smaller communities also face the threat of erosion one day claiming their home.

Years of attempts to limit the erosion have for the most part been cut off by federal and state agencies charged with protecting endangered species. The tiger beetle lays its larvae within naturally eroding cliffs, so most methods of limiting the erosion have been denied. Permitted measures have been ineffective, residents said. Publicity of the situation has risen lately as significant chunks of earth have begun falling from properties, leaving some homes dangerously close to the edge.

But a resolution on the beetle wouldn't mean immediate relief, and for some residents, the price tag may simply be too high.

"It's gotten to the point now where people have not applied knowing it would be denied and it's eroded to the point where it might not be economically feasible without some alternate sources of funding," Vajda said. "These aren't rich people as everybody thinks. These aren't million dollar homes. They are within the same range as other homes in the county, and if this erosion control cold have taken place five to eight years ago, it would have cost half what it's going to cost now."

Vajda said the community has developed a staged comprehensive plan and currently has a permit application for 11 properties under review by a joint evaluation committee comprised of representatives from federal and state agencies.

The agencies involved in the review change depending on the nature of the permit, said Leopoldo Miranda, field supervisor of the Chesapeake Bay Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The permit asks for stone revetments along the shoreline, a common form of erosion control. In recent years revetments have been reserved to areas with high wave action and long fetches — the distance wind has to create waves — make cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay a prime spot, Vajda said. The problem, he said, is the beetle.

"It's a long, arduous process," Vajda said. "We just don't have the time to wait because each year it gets more expensive and each year we lose more land and it can be mentally frustrating to people to have to live under these situations."

Calvert County Director of Planning and Zoning Greg Bowen said the problem is two-fold, and that even if permits were granted for armoring the tow of the cliff, a combination of rainwater runoff and freezing and thawing in the winter will continue to gradually erode the top of the cliff.

In some cases, that would be desirable, since the erosion from the top would eventually decrease the angle of the cliff until vegetation could take hold and stabilize it. But the cliffs have receded so close to some houses that there is no more room to allow that to happen, Bowen said.

Reinforcing the cliffs while also protecting the beetle presents a remarkable engineering challenge, Bowen said.

Regardless, any methods would require a slew of permits from varying state agencies and, depending on whether grading is required or materials need to be transported over land through the critical area, county permits as well.

"It really is a challenge for these property owners," Bowen said. "I'm certainly sympathetic to their situation and hope that eventually we can come up with a comprehensive policy to protect these homes."

Property owners would also need to submit buffer management plans and, likely, habitat protection plans to the county, Environmental Planner Dave Brownlee said. Issues like stormwater drainage and proximity to the cliff edge will also mean varying requirements for each property, Brownlee said.

"It's unfortunate that there's not one overriding set of code that you could go to and make reasonable sense of it," Vajda said. "Sometimes when I start reading all the code and see all the contradictions I get really confused and wonder how a regular person can make sense of this."

Bowen said that the county encourages and regulations do permit property owners to physically move their homes further back from the cliffs, but that is a tremendously expensive process that is in many cases prohibited by the lay of the land.

"We are extremely concerned about public safety and the well-being of the community. Right now we are exploring, we don't have all the answers right now, but we are looking at all the possibilities now to comply with the law and also protect these properties," said Miranda, who will be at Saturday's meeting. "That is why we would like to get open dialogue about the potential short-term and long-term solutions."

Miranda acknowledged the possibility that a true compromise may not be reached, and that options including buying out property owners or creating new habitat and relocating the beetle population have been considered.

"One of the possibilities that has been explored over parts of the country has been buying out property. That could be a possibility," he said. "Sometimes the actions might not be compatible, protecting the property and the beetle."

This is the second in a series of stories on the ongoing struggle between county residents trying to save their homes from cliff erosion and government officials aiming to protect the endangered Puritan tiger beetle.