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Town Council approves "riparian buffer" without requiring it to meet code

Chris Patterson

One of the first acts of the new Emmitsburg town board this week was to approve a "riparian buffer" at the request of the sisters with the Daughters of Charity, but the board did it without requiring the buffer meet the provisions for it under the town's code.

A riparian buffer is a conservation area along the perimeters of a body of water, and it would be built along the Daughters of Charity property on Willow Rill.

The town's ordinance requires a request for a buffer in the form of a written application, that it be approved by a state or federal agency, and that plantings of warm-weather grasses are to be discouraged. The plan would outline exactly where the buffer will be and what will be planted there, among other details.

Mayor Jim Hoover said the town's new board approved a request for the buffer made during the Monday night meeting despite not having any of the documentation about the request.

In addition, new board president Bill O'Neil announced earlier in the evening that town residents would get more information on what will be discussed in meetings in advance, so they can make informed comments on the issues. The buffer request was not on the agenda and no residents had notice it would be discussed, Hoover said.

At the referral of Hoover, town planner Mike Lucas explained Wednesday that the application for the buffer was received by the town April 23, and a request for the issue to be placed on the May 3 agenda was received on April 28.

The deadline for getting non-emergency items on a town agenda is usually one month before the meeting date, in this case April 1.

Hoover said the vote should have been postponed until the board members, and particularly the two new board members who had never heard or read any of the documentation in any official capacity, had a chance to review the ordinance.

In addition, the board needed to review the application and get recommendations from town staff.

Lucas said he was not asked for an opinion from the board and the buffer was approved without any condition requiring it to comply with a state or federal program. The application submitted for the buffer does not indicate approval by the government.

O'Neil said the organization has been working on the buffer for two years, and had requested a text amendment to the town's ordinances to allow the buffer, which was approved last year. He said he was familiar with what has been going on with the request, but thought the buffer itself had also been approved last year.

Questioned Wednesday, O'Neil said he had not seen the organization's application to the town and acknowledged that no opinion was obtained from the staff about whether it met the guidelines of the new ordinance.

He said that he and the board believed the buffer had already been approved, and wanted to expedite something that seemed to have been in the works for too long.

Everyone on the board had been "kept apprised" of the issue as it was going, even O'Neil and new commissioner Dianne Walbrecker, who both knew about the issue, he said.

"We just thought it was good to move forward," he said.

O'Neil said he believed the Maryland Department of Natural Resources had reviewed and approved the plan, and so there seemed no reason to delay a decision further. He said the sisters with the Daughters of Charity told him that.

According to the application submitted by the sisters, the program will partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and it is not signed off as approved by that agency, Lucas said. There is no information available that the plan was approved by the state either, he said. In addition, the plan submitted by the sisters is for the spring of 2001 to the summer of 2003, which is mostly before the town even had a riparian buffer ordinance, and it included the planting of warm weather grasses, something the town's ordinance strongly discourages. That ordinance was created in 2003, he said.

Lucas received a letter just a couple of days before the town meeting saying the grasses would be replaced with wildflowers, but that was not in the submitted plan. He did not have an opportunity to review the plan in total since it was received only five business days before the town meeting and was not scheduled for the May agenda, he said.

O'Neil said the town staff did say there were materials the board should review, but "not with the force" that indicated they had to review them before they acted on the request.

"What people need to know is these are growing pains and it was our first meeting ... and we had been dealing with the riparian buffer ... and the sisters program for at least nine months ... and they kept going through the details to where I frankly thought it was just layer upon layer upon layer about a program whose soul purpose is to prevent erosion along the banks of the creek," O'Neil said. "It's a good program. If any mistake was made or if anyone was offended, I apologize. We won't make that mistake again."

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