Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The holidays have been a time of celebration and information gathering. Blog Arundel will be back on-line on January 5. Happy New Year!


Thursday, December 18, 2003

Open Space Preserved

Good news on the green space conservation front. Today's Sun reports that 232 acres, with 7,000 ft of shoreline off Fort Smallwood Road and abutting the Patapsco River and several creeks, called White Pond Park, has been saved through a joint effort by the Weinberg Foundation and the State Program Open Space. The park, in Pasadena, will have even more acreage than Downs Park, which was acquired by the County in the 1980s.


Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Janet, Stop Horsing Around

Well, despite numerous citizen and internal efforts to halt the ill conceived project, it appears that the County is intent on proceeding with the development of the Smith Farm off College Parkway in Arnold. The project, aimed at getting the County 1.5 more ballfields has been the picture of poor County/community relations, and should it go through, presents a serious threat to the headwaters of Whitehall Creek. The 12-acre property was originally sold to the County for far less than market value, essentially under the condition that it remain a working equestrian center. Since the sale, the County has betrayed the seller's intent, decided to completely alter the terrain of the site, and put a road through its middle, when a far better site for ballfields lies less than 5 miles away. A former Nike missle site off of the Route 50 access road, could easily support 4 or more fields, and is already a fairly flat, open space. Re-grading the Smith farm site would require that hundreds of thousands of tons of dirt be moved from the site, presumably via enormous dumptrucks (which do wonders for the road surface) and dumped elsewhere. Where? you guessed it, likely the Nike site. Once disturbed, this sediment will surely find its way into Whitehall Creek and the Magothy River. This project fails on so many different levels it's distressing to see the County continue to keep pushing it.

The Department of Public Works will be holding a hearing to discuss providing the $250,000 for the project tomorrow at 10 a.m. on the 2nd floor of the State House, in the Governor's Reception Room. Word is, if you want to get a seat, be there by 9:30 a.m. It's important that concerned citizens, particularly those interested in protecting the environment attend and speak out against the project.


Monday, December 15, 2003

Moving Violations

Two pieces in today's Capital hint at both one source and symptom of the poor regional transportation planning that has gone on in the County and the State. First, over 40,000 families in the County (with a population around 460,000) have three or more cars (an 11 percent increase over 1990). At least part of the increase in car prevalance is certainly due to the inadequacy of public transportation options, a sentiment echoed by Ann Fligsten of the Arnold Preservation Council, who said she might be able to get rid of her family's third car if better bus routes were available.

As part of an effort to make sure more funding is available for transportation, Delegate John Leopold of Pasadena, is proposing to introduce an Amendment to the Maryland Constitution to prevent transportation funds from being raided for general fund use. From 1984 to 2003, almost $500 million has been taken from the transportation fund for the general fund. While many of Mr. Leopold's more conservative colleagues would apparently like to use this as an opportunity to build more roads and gut public transportation, it's important for public transportation advocates who support the amendment to be sure that, should transportation funding get additional protections, the money be used responsibly, to fund public transportation, bike, and pedestrian projects, as well as road construction.

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Friday, December 12, 2003

Mismanaging Impact

Those hoping to see new development pay its way and the County use its funds appropriately suffered a setback on Tuesday when a circuit court judge denied the county's request to put an end to the $25 million class action lawsuit by citizens and a developer. Yesterday's Capital reports that county officials may have broken the law by spending more than $6.4 million in impact fees collected from new homebuyers on inappropriate expenditures. County Code requires that funds be spent in the district in which they are collected, on projects that add capacity to infrastructure (e.g., more classrooms, additional sewer and water), within 6 years of being collected. Some of the fees were apparently spent to add space to several schools without adding any additional seats, and in another case, county planners failed to follow the proper procedures to get a three-year extension to use the fees. Fees for a current single-family home stand at $4,069, and the County has a balance of $38 million in impact fees banked. These fees are critical for upgrading infrastructure for the influx of new residents and offsetting some of the costs of new growth, it's imperative that the County doesn't squander them or jeopardize their legitimacy by managing them incompetently.


Thursday, December 11, 2003

Arresting Runoff

As an article in today's Baltimore Sun mentions, the freshly completed Southern District Police Station incorporates, among its other features a green, living roof. This type of roof most often consists of several inches of soil planted with sedum over a rubber membrane, helps absorb storm water1, increase energy efficiency2, and prolong the life of the subroof3. Several local businesses have added living roofs, including Washington Brick and Terra Cotta, and the City of Annapolis has discussed pursuing living roof projects as well.

Not mentioned in the piece, but also included at the Station are extensive rain garden plantings to help absorb and treat stormwater runoff. The County should be commended for leading the way in taking steps to protect our waterways and the Bay from stormwater runoff, and for using its construction sites as demonstration projects for innovative environmental practices. Let's keep the pressure on them to keep it up.

Bonus: An article on green roofs in Baltimore [pdf]

1 "a "green" roof can absorb up to 70% of stormwater"
2 The green roof system significantly outperformed the reference roof system in spring and summer with regard to energy efficiency.
3 "There are many anticipated pluses to a green roof, .... But if nothing else, it will extend the life of the roof two times."


Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The New Urbanism

Citizens fighting overdevelopment, poorly conceived development, and environmentally-harmful projects in the Baltimore metropolitan suburbs are often so deeply involved in piecemeal battles against developers or the County government in their own communities that they lack the time or energy to wage battle on fronts outside their immediate vicinity. This can make it difficult not only to build broad coalitions, but also to see the bigger picture of growth and development in the region.

While redevelopment projects in Annapolis begin to gain some traction (e.g., the Johnson Lumber site on West Street) and the Parole redevelopment continues to founder, a truly innovative, and quite courageous effort is taking place in some of Baltimore City's most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of homes sit vacant in the city, deteriorating, serving as outposts for drug dealers, and blighting the cityscape, yet green space grows more and more scarce in the surrounding counties, and home prices continue to escalate.

Rather than give up on Baltimore, like it seems so many have done, one young man, Adam Meister, and several cohorts have decided to try to reclaim Charm City one block at a time. Spending between $15,000 and $50,0001 to purchase and renovate formerly vacant homes, these individuals are attempting to re-infuse the city with young (and old) professionals committed to working with neighbors in existing communities to bring Baltimore back to its better days. It's important that we support these projects, both in word, and in deed, and that we make it clear to County government that part of "smart growth" is working with other municipalities in the region to help foster growth where infrastructure and services are already in place.

While we all certainly have our own local initiatives to wage, it's important that we step back from time to time and recognize that one of the most promising ways to halt suburban sprawl lies at the heart of the region. As goes Baltimore, so goes our green space.

1 The median price of homes in Anne Arundel County was $220,000 in October 2003.

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Looking for ways to get involved in local community service over the holidays? The Volunteer Center for Anne Arundel County has a Holiday Volunteer Guide on their website listing volunteer opportunities available throughout the month of December.


Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Anne Arundel's Flying Circus

Today's Capital reports on what has to be one of the most preposterous giveaways of state money in this writer's recent memory. Lee Airport, owned by the Lee family of Edgewater was the recipent of a state grant from the Maryland Aviation Administration in the amount of $170,000 to help design and carry out changes to the airpark and runway. To my mind, if the state's going to be handing out $170k in corporate welfare, there had better be a pretty substantial reason. There isn't.

What precipitated the need to change the airpark? The fact that the Lee family is trying to develop the adjacent property, which is currently farmland. About a year ago, the Lee's, using the coercive force of their lawyer, "negotiated" with the community to get zoning changes approved by the County Council. Turns out these zoning changes, which will allow a Harbor Center-sized commercial development on the farm plot, may cause the creation of structures which impede the flight path. So, we have a situation in which a family has played hardball with local environmentalists and the community, to use their land more profitably, and has now turned to the State to help them salve the self-inflicted wounds to their airport. They stand to gain millions of dollars on the sale of the former farm properties, and yet they are using tens of thousands of our tax dollars to refurbish their airport which has been impacted by the decision. We've been gamed, folks.

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Superintendent Smith’s School Woes

Two reports out this week from the Baltimore Sun describe some of the funding and structural problems that the County school system and its Superintendent, Eric Smith, face in improving student performance. First, it turns out that the top performing elementary schools in the County are attracting the best-educated, and most experienced teachers, whereas the low-performing schools, serving children in less affluent areas have a higher proportion of teachers without advanced degrees and with less teaching experience. Given the choice between working in a more difficult environment for pay equal to working in a less difficult one, it’s unsurprising that many of the most highly trained teachers choose the latter. Smith raises the issue of trying to find a way to incentivize teaching in those schools which serve large populations of disadvantaged students by providing teachers with additional funds for educational training and pay increases for improving student performance. This seems like a perfectly sensible course, let’s hope the County Executive and teachers’ union can be brought on board.

An honest assessment recognizes that such incentives come with a price though, and Smith says the school system needs $20-30 million next year just to pay for increases in salaries and benefits and keep up with other school systems in the area. All these considerations raise difficult questions, compounded by the fact that in October 2003, County residents declared “education/problems with schools” [pdf] the single most important problem the County is facing.


More Jug Bay. This Saturday, December 13, Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary will be hosting a sunset hike from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at 1361 Wrighton Road in Lothian. Bring a flashlight for the last leg of the hike, and be sure to bundle up.


Monday, December 08, 2003

Tilting at the Scales of Justice

Local zealot and pious pol, Don Dwyer, has decided to throw in with non-local zealot, and former Alabama Judge, Roy Moore, in the fight to protect us from the Constitution. Mr. Dwyer, a member of the Maryland General Assembly, representing Glen Burnie, has drafted a resolution that “would call on Congress to pass a law preventing the federal judiciary from hearing cases involving the public display of the Ten Commandments and the pledge of allegiance,” called the "Maryland Religious Independence from Federal Courts Act." The bill, also derisively referred to as the “Maryland Independence from the First Amendment Act” by some of its opponents (me) would, if passed, bring embarrassment to the State, akin to that lavished upon Kansas after its School Board was infiltrated by anti-intellectual, religious fundamentalists. Taking it upon himself to speak for the guy and gal on the street, Dwyer sputtered, "The average citizen is outraged … Without God and moral law, there is nothing left to determine right from wrong other than the fallible decisions of man."1 I don’t know about Dwyer, but this “average citizen” is able to navigate the modern world’s sometimes uneasy seas just fine with my own moral compass. I certainly don’t need bluenoses, like Dwyer, trying to abridge my rights and hamstring the courts on the public dime. But, should Delegate Dwyer feel the need for additional biblical instruction, let me direct him to the following passage:

Matthew 6:5-6: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...."

1 The Capital, December 8, 2003.


Concerned about the fact that Anne Arundel County has some of the worst air quality in the nation? Attend the Clean Energy Town Hall Meeting at the Anne Arundel Community College, Florestano Building, Room 101 on December 10, from 7:00-8:30pm. Check out Chesapeake Climate Action Network for more details.

Not concerned? You should be.

Maryland ranks 5th in the nation for poor air quality. Over 96% of Maryland’s electricity comes from dirty, dangerous, non-renewable energy sources and over 70% of that energy comes from coal, oil, and gas. As a result, emissions from those sources send 3,900 Maryland area residents to the emergency room every summer; contribute 37 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and deposit several tons of toxic mercury and nitrogen into the Chesapeake Bay.

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Time for a Toycott?

Speaking of taxes, in this time of tight budgets and lean economic times, one would hope that we could all pull together and pay our fair share. Unfortunately, some of the corporations doing business in Maryland, including Toys R Us, have cheated Maryland out of some $70 million in back taxes by setting up shell "holding companies" in Delaware. This scandal harkens back to Enron's tax games in the Cayman Islands. These mega-corporations spend millions of dollars to avoid the taxes they are legally required to pay, putting locally-owned businesses at a disadvantage, and depriving Marylanders of revenue desperately needed to run the State.

The Maryland Court of Appeals has held that the profits of holding companies like these are taxable by Maryland, but the "lowest common denominator" business climate that Delaware has set up to collect incorporation fees, and deprive other states of tax revenue, represents a serious problem for states all around the country. The strategy of getting ahead by undermining the rules and regulations that the rest of us have put in place is akin to the current incarnation of global "free trade", a race to the bottom, where companies without worker protections and environmental regulations are "rewarded" with exploitative manufacturing operations.


Saturday, December 06, 2003

Enjoy the snow folks! It's a great opportunity to get out and meet neighbors and to help those who might not be able to shovel their driveways or sidewalks or get out to the grocery store.


Friday, December 05, 2003

Selling the Future

Upon receiving word that Governor Ehrlich is determined to have a fire sale of various State-owned properties around the County, it appears that Executive Owens has done the right thing and tried to step in to block their sale. The 3.9 acre parcel at the northwest corner of Ritchie Highway and Jones Station Road in Severna Park and the 64-space Park & Ride lot in Earleigh Heights are on the Governor's hit list and represent yet one more step in his ideological drive to avoid tax increases by any means necessary. Slots and selling public lands are apparently the most creative solutions he can muster.

Meanwhile, the Severna Park plot is used regularly by not only commuters and those utilizing the B & A trail, but it has also hosted a farmer's market for 11 years. It has been a site for the Severna Park community to gather for recreation and commerce, and holds the potential to become an even more substantial hub for public transportation between Annapolis and Baltimore in the future, and once the public loses it, it's going to be gone for good.

Rather than auctioning our assets off and mortgaging our future, perhaps we should consider Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s famous words, "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." Future columns will focus on the public's cognitive dissonance between wanting more services (and effective funding of those currently in place) and the widespread disdain for paying more taxes, but let me leave you, dear reader, with a teaser. The October 2003 survey [pdf] by the Center for the Study of Local Issues, at Anne Arundel Community College, found that when asked "Which is the best approach for dealing with the State budget deficit?", only 24 percent of residents suggested raising taxes or creating new ones. Only 27 percent suggested reducing spending. Can you guess which alleged silver bullet almost all the rest chose?

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Tomorrow, December 6, there will be a great opportunity to get out and see some of the South County wilderness. Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary will hold a bird walk for beginners from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. at 1361 Wrighton Road in Lothian. Participants will learn how to identify birds by sight and sound. Binoculars and field guides will be available to borrow. The event is not appropriate for children under 12. For more information, call 410-741-9330 or visit The sanctuary is a real local treasure.


Thursday, December 04, 2003

County Waste

Let one thing be clear, I don't oppose government spending in principle, but I do oppose spending public dollars on patronage, unnecessary baubles, and hubris. It's seems like we've recently been hit by a "perfect storm" of misspent funds.

Earlier this year, our Honorable County Executive, Janet Owens, spent $2,312.50 putting her name on five "Welcome to Anne Arundel County" signs shortly after being elected to her second term. Though she's currently limited from serving another term in the position, some curious observers have asked coyly, "does this mean she has higher aspirations for 2006?"

Now County residents are hit with a report yesterday from The Capital that Owens spent $2,518, Sheriff George Johnson (anointed heir to the Executive throne) spent $865, and the Fire Chief, Roger Simonds (recently under fire for using overtime money for an unauthorized warehouse renovation project) spent $155 in taxpayer dollars sending holiday greeting cards to friends and associates (donors?) over the past couple of years. Apparently, Owens has offered a mea culpa, paying back her sum from campaign funds, and perhaps inadvertantly admitting the nature of such personal correspondence from our elected leader.

Today we learn that the County School Board is paying someone $650 a month to give the public access to their meeting agendas over the internet. In a world where you can't watch television five minutes without being proffered internet access and webhosting for $19.95 (or less!) per month, this conjures up sketchy memories of $900 hammers for the Pentagon. Thankfully we have some real sharpies on the Board, like Konrad Wayson, who offered flatly, "There are other options out there, ... It may be well worth looking at those." Indeed sir, it may. Perhaps next time the County could do us taxpayers the favor of looking at other options before it forks over $650/month for $20 internet service.

Any of these incidents alone might hardly be worth comment, but a pattern certainly seems to be evolving here. We'll be keeping watch.


Lower Western Shore Trib Team

Last night, December 3, there was a public hearing for the Lower Western Shore Tributary Team, an organization whose mission is ostensibly to "reduce nutrient and sediment inputs and to restore habitat in the Lower Western Shore Watershed through community participation." What became clear, relatively shortly after an informative presentation on the Team's goals was given by Jamie Baxter of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was that without significant innovations in dealing with increasing loads of nitrogen and phosphorous, and without a ton of money to implement those innovations (the Trib. Team estimates $3 billion through some rather archane formula), we're going to be up the Bay without a paddle. And that's the good news. As of right now, the Team has neither the creative solutions to bring down nitrogen and phosphorus loads to the level required by the Clean Water Act, nor the money to put them into place if they did. That's where you come in.

Know of innovative solutions or potential funding streams1, drop Mike Bilek of DNR a line, I'm sure he'd love to hear from you.

In the meantime, some steps homeowners and business owners can take themselves are: upgrade your septic system to one which denitrifies, build rain gardens on your property to contain runoff, and use less (or no) fertilizer on your lawn.

1 [Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), says it will run between $5-14 per household in Maryland]


Wednesday, December 03, 2003

CBF v. (sort of) EPA

Well, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has finally "lost patience" and decided to petition the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to make states comply with provisions of the Clean Water Act, particularly those concerned with the emission of nitrogen from wastewater treatment plants. We can be sure the folks at EPA are shaking in their boots (they aren't even required to reply). Those concerned about the environment have repeatedly settled for suggestions rather than regulations (see: Chesapeake 2000 Agreement), petitions rather than lawsuits (see: CBF v. EPA, 2003), and yet some wonder why the Bay Index keeps dropping faster than a State Delegate at the sight of a slots lobbyist.

As Howard Ernst, author of Chesapeake Bay Blues, is fond of saying (approximately), we can either continue the "feel good" compromises that have gotten the Bay into its current sorry state, or we can get serious about protecting the Bay, sue polluters when the need arises, and step on some toes.


Franklin Point Park

Last night, December 2, the Franklin Point Park (FPP) planning meeting was held at Shady Side Elementary [a general map of the area]. It was well-attended with about 30 participants, comprised of equal parts planning committee members and the general public. The plan actually includes 5 separate recreation areas, four of which are smaller than the 447-acre Franklin Point parcel and are located on the northern portions of the peninsula.

There seemed to be general consensus around the uses described by the planning company, ERM, for the 4 smaller parks, but disagreement over the proper course of action regarding whether or not the plan for FPP should include athletic ballfields. Several residents thought that upgrading existing fields on one of the smaller parcels would address the athletic needs of the community, while a couple of others disagreed, contending that the student population at Shady Side Elementary has increased recently (a situation which, based on recent data, is not occurring) [in 1998, the school had 556 students, in 2000, the school had 473 students, in 2003, it had 459 students; this represents a 17 percent decrease in enrollment from 1998-2003].

However, even if the elementary school-aged population in the area hadn't been declining for the past six years, which it appears to have been, one wonders about the virtue of placing athletic fields adjacent to one of the most environmentally pristine pieces of land in south Anne Arundel County.

The next planning meeting is January 13th, at Shady Side Elementary.

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Monday, December 01, 2003

Talking about Sediment and Erosion Control

Last Monday, November 24, I attended an informative and well-conceived workshop on sediment and erosion control put together by Anne Pearson, Director of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities, and members of the Anne Arundel Watershed Network. The event brought together County representatives, such as Ron Bowen, Director of Public Works, Spurge Eismeier, Director of Inspections and Permits, and Jeff Opel, Manager for the Anne Arundel Soil Conservation District , with community activists and other county bureaucrats. Also speaking at the event was Brant Keller, Director of Public Works and Stormwater Utilities for the City of Griffin, GA. Keller was dynamic and informative in describing how Griffin, a city of 24,000 (Annapolis is a city of about 35,000), has managed to implement a stormwater utility, and raise millions of dollars to address the problems caused by stormwater runoff, and disincentivize the promulgation of impervious surface.

Anne Arundel County, one of the counties with among the most waterfrontage in the entire country, has lagged behind in adopting progressive reforms such as a stormwater utility. These fees help residents and commercial enterprises pay their fair share for the damage that the impervious surfaces on their property cause to our natural environment, rather than passing those costs on to the public-at-large. They help to begin to "create an honest market" [pdf]. More on this later.....

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Those concerned about preserving quality of life in Anne Arundel County need to make their voices heard, in letters to the local papers, at public hearings, and in their political and activist clubs. Two important events coming up this week could use your attendance.

On Tuesday, December 2, there will be a meeting at Shady Side Elementary on the planning for a Franklin Point Park. If you'd like to see this 486 acre piece of waterfront land remain a natural area, show up at 7pm and make your feelings known.

On Thursday, December 4, an event, Managing the Impact: Annapolis Transportation Projects, will be held from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. in the Annapolis city council chambers. The event will focus on discussing strategies for easing congestion - staggered commutes, ride sharing, public transit and signs.


Welcome to Blog Arundel, this is the first post of what will, hopefully, be an ongoing effort to explore and comment, from a progressive perspective, on many of the issues affecting Anne Arundel County that aren't covered or fully addressed in the local press.

-N.D. Sproll