CHESTERTOWN — Kent County may have veto power over any proposal for a new Chesapeake Bay crossing landing here after all.
That news was presented to the Kent County Commissioners during their July 24 meeting. It came via correspondence with the state Office of the Attorney General over a section of the Maryland code dealing with the construction of toll roads in any or all of the nine Eastern Shore counties.
“A State agency, including the Maryland Transportation Authority, may not construct any toll road, toll highway, or toll bridge in the counties enumerated in this section without the express consent of a majority of the governments of the affected counties,” the provision in question states.
There was an effort mounted by western shore lawmakers to repeal the transportation provision granting Shore counties a say in this year’s General Assembly session. It failed.
Kent County residents and officials are concerned that ongoing studies by the state over where to place a new Bay crossing could end with the project coming here. That is because before either span of the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial (Bay) Bridge was built, Tolchester was seen as a potential crossing point.
Other discussed options include another span in Queen Anne’s County and a bridge to Dorchester County.
In sending a letter to the Office of the Attorney General, the commissioners wanted to know if the toll facility was a Bay crossing landing here, would Kent County be the only affected county, thereby casting the sole vote. Or, would all nine counties still get to weigh in?
The response from Assistant Attorney General David W. Stamper states that if the provision were applied to a Bay crossing landing in one county on the Shore, that county would be the only one to have a say.
“So how do you vote?” Kent County Commissioner Bill Short said upon hearing Stamper’s interpretation July 24.
State Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, had asked the same question. Stamper sent the commissioners the response he gave Hershey, that it would most likely be the one county where the bridge lands.
“(N)othing I have found in the legislative history suggests the General Assembly specifically contemplated the application of this provision to a toll bridge across the Bay. But the lack of any evidence in the legislative history on this specific point, or the suggestion that the General Assembly likely was focused primarily on infrastructure with a more significant presence on the Eastern Shore, cannot overcome the plain meaning of the statutory language, which expressly limits a State agency’s authority to construct a toll facility, including a toll bridge, in any of the nine Eastern Shore counties,” Stamper wrote.
Commissioner Ron Fithian agreed July 24 that he thought it unlikely state lawmakers were thinking of a Bay crossing when the provision was enacted. He said the concern was more likely focused on the possibility of a toll highway running from Cecil County down the Shore.
“The way it sounds, if a bridge was to come across to Kent County, we’d be the only county that’s affected. It would be up to us to decide whether it comes or not, which chances of that are slim to none,” Fithian said.
County Administrator Shelley Heller said it may depend on what the state proposes and what it considers a toll facility.
“In the final analysis, it is difficult to give conclusive guidance about the application of the statute in the abstract, without applying the statute to a specific proposed toll project,” Stamper wrote. “While I hope this letter is responsive to your questions, it is not an official opinion of the Attorney General.”
Also at the meeting, the commissioners received a copy of a letter from Del. Steve Arentz, R-36-Queen Anne’s, to the regional chief of the National Wildlife Service over the need for a wildlife specialist position at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge near Rock Hall. The position has been vacant since the fall, leading the volunteer corps Friends of Eastern Neck to launch a letter-writing campaign for support.
Arentz called the refuge — an island encompassing more than 2,000 acres — a national treasure. He said it attracts one of the largest populations of wintering tundra swans in the country. He said people go there to fish, hunt and hike, and schools use it to teach students about nature and biology.
“It is vital to the Refuge facility that funds be allocated, as the future of the Refuge could be in jeopardy without this position being filled,” Arentz wrote to the National Wildlife Service. “The importance to the Eastern Shore and to Kent County cannot be overstated, and I respectfully request your consideration to appropriate the necessary funding so that this Refuge may continue to thrive.”
In her report to the commissioners, Heller said the county’s alcoholic beverage and tobacco inspector, Rob Edler, reviewed 23 establishments in the county that sell tobacco. She said only one failed to properly ask for identification.