Wall may help New Point Comfort Lighthouse withstand water, weather

Clinging to a rocky outpost no bigger than an average city residential lot, New Point Comfort Lighthouse in Virginia is inching closer to stability.

The 202-year-old lighthouse is Mathews County's signature icon and the latest effort to save it involves an estimated 5,000 tons of granite boulders and a wall around the lighthouse on its quarter-acre spit of land in Mobjack Bay to keep it safe from 100-year storms.

It would also include a pedestrian walkway, said Earl Soles, a member of the New Point Comfort Lighthouse Preservation Task Force, which is assisting Mathews County in a long-term preservation plan and planning a fund drive for the project.

The lighthouse was built between 1802 and 1805 by Elzy Burroughs. It was the fourth one built in the Bay; only two of the other older lighthouses still stand. At the time of its construction, the lighthouse land could be accessed by foot at low tide. Now it's on a small island.

The 63-foot-tall New Point Comfort Lighthouse was first lit on Jan. 17, 1805. Burroughs was appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to be the first keeper of the light. It hasn't been used as a navigational beacon since 1963 and has suffered from repeated vandalism. Mathews acquired the lighthouse in 1975, three years after it was declared a National Historic Landmark.

The lighthouse property is off-limits and "no trespassing" signs are posted. Mathews County Administrator Steve Whiteway said the lighthouse's structure and the stairway inside it are dangerous.

Scott Hardaway, a coastal geologist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said the lighthouse sits about 8 or 9 feet above low mean water. The rocks that are supposed to act as barriers to seawater were "just thrown around" the island, he said, and were rendered less effective when they were further tossed about by Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

The proposal is to remove those rocks and build a protective granite wall and a path around the island, designed by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

"That ought to take care of it for a while," Hardaway said. Earlier this year, the Army Corps of Engineers completed a study to see if the island could be expanded and stabilized with dredging material. But that didn't pan out because of the expense. The granite boulders option is estimated by Soles to cost $750,000. The county is awaiting a final design of a preservation project and, once it has permits, will begin actively seeking grants and private donations to fund the project.

But that's just a start. The task force and Mathews County would also like to restore the lighthouse.

Actions sought to help blue crab

Worried about the lack of recovery in blue crab stocks, Virginia officials recommended a series of actions in January aimed at restoring the state's most prized seafood - the Chesapeake Bay blue crab.

A yearlong study showed that Virginia and Maryland are stuck at near-historic lows, coupled with low production while fishing pressures mount and environmental conditions deteriorate.

"Clearly, we need to be more aggressive in our approach, and we intend to be," Jack Travelstead, state director of fisheries, told the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Most immediately, the commission wants to vote on a group of proposals that would affect the 2008 crab season, which begins in the spring. The proposed changes include: shortening the crab season by a month; keeping fishermen out of no-harvest zones for more time; requiring a second escape hole in most crab pots in the Bay; and banning a practice in which crabbers designate other people to work for them as "agents."

In the long term, the commission supported a fundamental shift in how it regulates the crab fishery, the Virginian-Pilot reported. Under the concept, the state would allot fishermen a certain number of days they can collect crabs each season. The fishermen could tend to their pots those days, or they could buy, sell or trade their legal time to others.

A similar system has turned the sea scallop industry around, both economically and environmentally, officials said.

Groups appeal ICC ruling

Two environmental groups in January filed appeals of a November ruling by a federal judge that cleared the way for work to begin on an 18-mile highway through Maryland's D.C. suburbs.

The Sierra Club and Environmental Defense filed the appeals in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, seeking to overturn a lower court ruling that concluded federal officials had complied with environmental laws when they approved the Intercounty Connector. The groups had argued that planners did not adequately gauge the effect the road would have on air quality and the effect of auto emissions on the health of residents living nearby. They sought to block work on the highway until further study could be completed.

Maryland transportation officials said the $2.4 billion road, slated to open by early 2012, will ease congestion in the heavily traveled D.C.suburbs. The state argued that the road was planned with environmental considerations in mind.

The Audubon Naturalist Society, which took part in the original suit, chose not to join the appeal, but issued statements in support of Sierra Club and Environmental Defense's legal action.

Study cites mill ponds for altering natural streams

The results of a study by two Franklin & Marshall College geologists published in the journal Science in January, argued that the region's proliferation of mill ponds dramatically altered stream valleys.

In their paper, "Natural Streams and the Legacy of Water Powered Mills," Robert Walter and Dorothy Merritts argue that the classic meandering stream with eroding banks and self-formed floodplain in the mid-Atlantic region is actually an artifact of post-European settlement and land-use change over the last 300 years.

Deforestation for agricultural uses from the 17th through 19th centuries unleashed large volumes of eroded soil from watersheds in the East, according to the authors. These fine sediments were trapped behind tens of thousands of dams that were constructed to create millponds. This process inundated, buried and sequestered pre-settlement wetlands and altered regional stream functions- probably within two generations of European settlement.

The research shows that the common model of the meandering river as the result of a natural process is a misinterpretation for many streams in the East, and that this stream form arose only after extensive human intervention.

Top PA court upholds land preservation rights

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in December overturned a lower court ruling that would have removed protection from land under an agricultural easement.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation joined Lancaster County in asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn a lower court decision allowing the Ephrata Area School District to build a road on farmland preserved with a conservation easement, fearing it would set a precedent for other land held in easements.

"Pennsylvania is a national leader in farmland preservation," said Matthew Royer, the CBF's Pennsylvania staff attorney. "The Supreme Court's ruling bolsters this status by giving holders of open space easements the clear right to ensure that land is permanently protected. The court affirmed that an easement holder cannot be left without a say in whether construction may occur on preserved farmland. Without this decision we could have seen an open season on preserved farms and open space throughout Pennsylvania."

Stormwater tax credit passes

Maryland's Anne Arundel County will offer a tax credit up to $10,000 to people who try to reduce stormwater pollution on their property. The tax credit, to be administered over five years, was passed by the County Council in January.

The credit allows people to deduct from their property taxes the cost of installing rain gardens, green roofs, pervious pavement and other types of technology that help stormwater seep into the ground instead of rushing down slopes and roads, picking up pollutants and carrying them into the Chesapeake Bay.

County employees are developing a list of improvements that are eligible for the credit. Experts agree that one of the biggest contributions to stormwater pollution comes from older development that was built before modern laws required more stringent management.

Trib strategy costs study urged

Pennsylvania State Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland/York, recently announced plans to introduce a Senate resolution that would require a third-party study of the costs for sewage treatment facilities to implement the state's tributary strategy.

"A variety of municipalities have voiced concerns about the costs to implement the Chesapeake Bay Tributary Strategy," Vance said. "The Department of Environmental Protection maintains compliance costs could be as low as $190 million. Municipalities believe it could exceed $1 billion. By having a third party study the costs, we will have a better handle on it and be in a better position to consider requests for state financial assistance."

The resolution would direct the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to review estimates of the costs that sewage treatment facilities will incur to comply with the tributary strategy.