The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Law was passed by the Maryland General Assembly on June 1, 1984, with the purpose of establishing a Resource Protection Program for the bay and its tributaries and fostering more environmentally sensitive development in areas near the shoreline. The law was in response to national studies documenting the decline in water quality and productivity of the Bay and research linking this to the increased levels of pollutants, nutrients and toxics in the Bay System. The Law set up the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission to oversee the resulting program and to adopt certain criteria by which the State and Local Governments would implement the program.

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The Critical Area includes the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries to the head of tide, tidal wetlands, plus all land and water areas within 1,000 feet beyond the landward boundary of these waters and wetlands.
At the same time, the Chesapeake Bay Program is the central forum for Bay Protection and studies for the region. Participating are the State of Maryland, Commonwealths of Virginia and Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Maryland participates in many ways in the Bay Program, along with EPA and the Bay Commission. It is often referred to as the "Bay Agreement", because the chief executives of these four jurisdictions and their Federal partners were signatories of the original agreement in 1987 and continue to be active in its execution. A new Bay Agreement was recently signed.
The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area and the Commission are just a part of Maryland's effort to improve the quality of the Bay and should not be confused with the multi-jurisdictional program. However, because of its requirement for local implementation, the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Program is the most familiar aspect of Bay protection measures.
The Somerset County Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Program was developed to follow the criteria established by the State and to meet the following goals:
  • Minimize adverse impacts on water quality that result from pollutants that run off from surrounding lands;

  • Conserve fish, wildlife and plant habitat; and

  • Establish land use policies for development in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area that accommodates growth and also addresses the fact that, even if pollution is controlled, the number, movement and activities of persons in the area can create adverse environmental impacts.
The County developed its original program over several years, beginning in 1986. It was formally adopted by the Board of County Commissioners on September 10, 1988. Although the program has been amended since that time, the basic tenets and requirements of the program and the zoning ordinance sections implementing the program have remained the same.
The local program consists of the program itself, which explains the requirements and protection measures in place, the Critical Area Maps that visually show the boundaries, 100-foot buffer, land classifications, resources and other resource information and portions of the Subdivision Regulations and Zoning Ordinance that implement the Critical Area requirements.
Within Somerset County, there are 619 miles of shoreline and approximately 37,000 acres of uplands (tidal wetlands cover approximately 30,000 acres) that are subject to the Critical Area requirements. Most of the County's waterways are tidal for several miles, and the portions of the Pocomoke and Wicomico Rivers in the County are completely tidal. The Manokin is tidal into the Town of Princess Anne. Historically, development took place within these tidal reaches. The desirability of waterfront homes has continued to spur development within the Critical Area, even as citizens have come to recognize the need to protect the Bay and its tributaries.
It is the intent of the local program to protect the Bay and its surrounding habitat, through the wise use of natural resources, while trying to accommodate development and economic growth.
The original Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Local Program was adopted by the County on September 10, 1988. Between 1985 and September of 1988, the County had followed an Interim Program as required under State law. December 1, 1985 is also established as the "grandfathering date for lots which existed prior to the Critical Area Act. Any parcel or lot that did not exist as of that date has to conform to all Critical Area requirements, including density. Those that were "grandfathered" are allowed to be developed, although they may not meet the density requirement, and may require a buffer variance because of the size of the lot. However, such lots must still address the other habitat protection provisions of the law.
The local program has been revised in the past and is currently due to be updated again. Whenever an update is undertaken, the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission reviews the local program and must approve the final draft. While updates are required by law, they are also often necessary because of changes in the state law, court decisions, and new information. Occasionally, the County itself may wish to clarify a requirement or amend it in some way. Revisions to the local program must go through public hearings in the County before being finally submitted for approval by the Critical Area Commission.
During the last legislative session, there were two bills relating to Critical Areas. The first brought the Coastal Bays into the Critical Area and applies only to Worcester County. The second clarified the requirements for a Critical Area Variance. This bill was a direct response to several recent court cases, and the General Assembly, was concerned that the Critical Area law had been compromised by the decisions rendered.
Although several newspapers have interpreted this as a strengthening of the Critical Area law on waterfront properties, it in no way changes the regulations as they have been applied within Somerset County. The Somerset County Board of Zoning Appeals has reviewed all Critical Area variance applications in a manner consistent with the new law and none of these decisions have been appealed to Circuit Court.
The best source of information as to the Critical Area Law, how it is applicable in Somerset County, and how it may affect a given property, is the County Planning and Zoning Office, the Department of Technical and Community Services. The Department has printed brochures and information on the One Hundred Foot Buffer and tree plantings, as well as having maps that can be reviewed in the office with local planning staff.
The Department of Technical and Community Services is located in the
Somerset County Office Complex,
11916 Somerset Avenue,
Room 211 (2nd floor),
Princess Anne, Maryland 21853.
Telephone: 410-651-1424;
Fax: 410-651-2597;
Office hours are 8:30 to 4:30, Monday through Friday.
Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission | Chesapeake Bay Website
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