The Environmental Spectator

Man vs. Beetle

The Puritan tiger beetle has better lawyers than homeowners at Maryland's Chesapeake Bay Estates.

By 11.1.11

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Chesapeake Ranch Estates is a bayside community of about 4,000 homes located in southern Maryland overlooking the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. It is filled with spectacular views and abundant wildlife. Residents believe they enjoy the best of both worlds. It is about a 90-minute commute to Washington, D.C. and yet, the region is distinctly rural.

Unfortunately, about 100 Chesapeake Ranch homeowners are currently living a nightmare. Their homes are located along Golden West Way, a small two-lane road that snakes along cliffs that rise about one hundred feet above the Chesapeake Bay. Today, about one-quarter mile of Golden West is closed as it is deemed no longer to be safe for vehicle travel as the cliff edge is now too close to the road; in some places, a mere 25 feet. Concrete barriers block vehicles from accessing the stretch of road.

It is not just the inconvenience of having to circumnavigate much of the community in order to travel a mere half-mile down the road that irks local residents. Homeowners along Golden West have watched helplessly as their properties have collapsed into the bay. In 1996, 12-year Wendy Miller who was walking along the beach with her family perished when she was crushed under falling earth. Her death caused the beach to be closed.

The problem with the eroding cliffs could be solved with a relatively straightforward undertaking. The homeowners could shore up the cliffs with riprap or revetments in order to stabilize their properties. Unfortunately, they are prohibited from doing so by enforcement of the Endangered Species Act because the cliffs are the natural habitat of the Puritan tiger beetle.

The Puritan tiger beetle (Cicindela puritana) is one of the 1,967 species worldwide that is on the endangered species list. It was added to the list as a "threatened" species in 1990. According to entomologists, the beetle's preferred habitat is sandy beaches with adjoining cliff faces that are devoid of vegetation. The continuous erosion of the cliffs precludes vegetation from growing and thereby provides the very soil in which the female beetles burrow and lay the eggs. At least 6,500 and as many as 10,000 tiger beetles are estimated to live in the cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay.

For two decades, homeowners in Chesapeake Ranch and elsewhere along 26 miles of the western shore of the Chesapeake have been prevented from taking any reasonable action to shore up the cliffs and slow the erosion as it could result in vegetation growing along the cliff face. There is no resale market for their homes as it is only a matter of time before the properties collapse into the bay.

A detailed study completed in late 2010 found 234 homes are located within 100 feet of the cliff, 43 are within 20 feet, 20 are within 10 feet and 19 homes are within five feet. One home is overhanging a cliff. The homeowners' predicament could not be more dire in spite of the fact the Puritan tiger beetle is present in only half of the endangered properties.

Federal and state officials have allowed few efforts to stop the erosion. A $200,000 plan undertaken by four families to deploy nearly 600 two-ton hollow concrete domes off-shore as a man-made reef to slow the waves crashing on the beach yielded few results. Another family's proposal to build a breakwater about a hundred feet into the bay to slow the cliff erosion was disapproved because it might harm the local crab habitat. The Maryland blue crab -- while pricey to the consumer -- is neither endangered nor threatened.

In recent weeks, a combined federal-state mitigation plan has been in the works. Homeowners may apply for an "incidental take permit" that allows "private parties undertaking otherwise lawful projects that might result in the take of an endangered or threatened species." In concert with the application, homeowners would be assessed a fee that paid into a fund that would finance an existing tiger beetle habitat elsewhere or would finance a relocation effort.

Complicating matters is that a comprehensive, community-wide plan -- which would be the most sensible approach -- has been discouraged. Instead, federal and state officials are encouraging a piecemeal approach by requesting homeowners to submit individual plans.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a $2.4 million grant to purchase about 225 acres of shorefront property as an easement (and 230 acres for a similar easement on the Sassafras River on Maryland's eastern shore) for a protected tiger beetle habitat. There are not any known efforts underway to reintroduce captive-reared or relocated tiger beetles into the preserve.

No permits have yet been issued to any homeowners under the mitigation plan. The large number of federal and state agencies involved in the approval process (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and three Maryland agencies: Natural Resources, Environment, and Emergency) virtually ensure approval will be a long and drawn-out affair. Further, a source involved with current permit discussions has reported that an unofficial limit has been set at 15 percent of the affected properties. If true, then five out of six property owners will eventually lose their homes. To a beetle.

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About the Author
Mark Hyman hosts "Behind the Headlines," a commentary program for Sinclair Broadcast Group. You can follow him on Twitter at @markhyman.