Thursday, December 28, 2006

Annapolis Crime is Up. Why?

With the special election for two Annapolis Aldermanic seats nearly upon us, and the end of the year crime statistics showing that serious crimes, including violent and property crimes, are up 12 percent in Annapolis this year, it seems as good a time as any to ask, "Why?" There have been twice as many homicides this year (8), 48 percent more burglaries, and 9 percent more robberies than were reported last year. According to Police Chief Johnson, "most of the crimes are drug-related or at least fueled by drugs." To anyone familiar with Annapolis, this isn't a surprise. All the while, crime in the County has dropped 1.6 percent from 2005.

The Mayor, quite reasonably, is frustrated, and searching for novel solutions, noting that her community policing, neighborhood watch, and social programs haven't seemed to have much of an impact on this year's crime rate, "Give me some new ideas." The Chief contends, "most of the crimes are being committed by the same people over and over again." Yet, in the next breath, he utters, "The whole criminal justice system is working from our perspective." Does he not see the disconnect?

Here's my question: "Given that most of the serious crime in Annapolis is drug related, and that much of the most "flamboyant" drug activity is taking place in particular sectors of the City (even if is being committed by non-Annapolitans, or non-Annapolitans are driving the markets), why is it that the City Police Department can't seem to nip this problem." The City isn't that large.

I would like to see the Police Department prepare a GIS layout of where each of these 2,181 serious crimes took place, and identify clusters, and then patrol these areas, with at least some foot patrols every night until several things are made clear: First, open air drug dealing is not going to be tolerated in the City of Annapolis. Second, the police are going to "protect and serve" every neighborhood in the city. And finally, residents across the City feel safe to leave their homes, even when the sun goes down. It would probably make sense to work in concert with the County Police to ensure crime doesn't simply skip outside the City limits. If this can't be done, I would very much like to hear why.

I have heard accounts that city police are "afraid to do their job." And, that by actually busting criminals, they run the risk of being accused of harassment and tarnishing their career record. So, rather than be effective, they choose to play it safe and turn a blind eye to certain types of activity. If this isn't the case, I would like to hear that as well.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Annapolis Ward 8 Election Preview

Today's Capital covers the race for the Aldermanic seat that was vacated by Josh Cohen's election to the County Council. Two Democrats, Ross Arnett and Paul Foer, are facing off against two Republicans, Frank Bradley and Joel Saline.

Candidate Profiles:

  • Ross Arnett (D) - Former president of the Eastport Civic Association. Interested in controlling growth, reducing crime by improving street lighting, and empowering neighborhood watch groups.

  • Paul Foer (D) - Former transportation consultant and city Department of Transportation employee. His platform centers on "the environment, public transportation, public safety and changing the mayoral system to include a city manager to be hired and fired by the council."

  • Frank Bradley (R) - Retired business owner. His primary focus is public safety, with a eye to environmental and growth issues.

  • Joel Saline (R) - Solid-waste engineering company employee. Interested in increasing public safety and focusing on sensible growth.

    Labels: ,

  • Tuesday, December 26, 2006

    Allstate to Limit Coverage in Maryland

    Last week, Allstate Corp. announced that it would stop providing new homeowners' insurance coverage in all or part of 11 counties surrounding the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries1 based on concerns that oceanic warming could cause stronger storms to hit the northeast. Some have already questioned the move, but I, for one, applaud it.

    Insurance companies, which are still reeling from the damage created by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, seem now to be taking seriously the concern that a warmer Atlantic Ocean could cause more violent hurricanes (For the current state of the science, check out NOAA's "Atlantic Hurricanes & Climate" [pdf]). While the scientific community is still deliberating on the relationship between hurricane severity in the Atlantic and global warming (the period from 1945 to 1970 had what appears to be a similar level of storms), there is little question that several other factors have lead to the increased destructiveness of these storms. Foremost among them, is "rising concentrations of population and infrastructure in coastal regions."

    In the US, at least, both private and public insurers have subsidized this colonization of the coastline, and have made it economically viable for individuals to put themselves and their homes in harms way, often destroying millions of acres of vital wetlands and coastal barrier features in the process.

    It's incumbent that FEMA, in particular, stop writing new flood insurance policies countrywide and prepare the program for a gradual phase out. As homes and businesses covered by the program are flooded or destroyed by storms, policy owners should be given a payout with the understanding that they can either, 1) take the funds and purchase property outside the floodzone, or 2) use the funds to rebuild their home on its prior site, but that in either case, they will not be provided flood insurance into the future. It's patently ludicrous for the American taxpayer to subsidize development which is environmentally destructive, dangerous to its inhabitants, and a poor investment.

    1 The changes take effect in February 2007, and will apply to residents in Calvert, Dorchester, Somerset, St. Mary's, Talbot, Wicomico and Worcester counties and parts of Anne Arundel, Charles, Prince George's and Queen Anne's.

    Additional reading material:

  • The Beaches are Moving: The Drowning of America's Shoreline. (1983). Wallace Kaufman and Orrin H. Pilkey Jr.

  • THE BEACHES ARE MOVING: A Look At The Rising Sea Level And Its Impact On Coastline Communities, Particularly Ocean City, Maryland (1997). Shauna Johnson.

  • Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast. (2003). Mike Tidwell.

    Labels: ,

  • Thursday, December 21, 2006

    Leopold Names I&P Director

    On Wednesday, County Executive John Leopold named Betty Dixon, former Land Use and Environment Coordinator, to head up the Department of Inspections and Permits. Let's hope she's able to get more inspectors out in the field and do a more effective job than her predecessors.

    Labels: ,

    Wednesday, December 20, 2006

    Council Hears Board of Appeals Applicants

    Today's Sun provides coverage of the Monday evening County Council meeting where Board of Appeals candidates were "interviewed" by the Council.

    Six of the sitting Board members have re-applied, and at least 3 seem relatively likely to be re-appointed.

    Labels: ,

    Tuesday, December 19, 2006

    County Squanders $4.7 Million, Revisited

    The latest chapter in the saga of the allegedly misspent impacts fees has taken an unfortunate turn. A Circuit Court Judge has ordered that the County refund more than $4.7 million (now, with interest, over $11 million) in improperly spent impact fees to homeowners who paid the fees between 1988 and 1995.

    The crux of the dispute focuses on the requirements of the 1987 impact fee law passed by the County:

    The law provided that impact fee money had to be spent within six years, though extensions were possible; required the county to spend money on schools only if it increased student capacity; and laid out how money could be spent on roads.

    Among the instances of improper expenditures, according to the Judge:

  • "The county improperly spent more than $2.8 million in impact fees to expand Park Elementary School in Brooklyn Park and South Shore Elementary School outside Annapolis without adding any more seats."
  • "The county spent money on trailers, called relocatable classrooms, which the court ruled wasn't allowed under the law."
  • "Sections of East West Boulevard in Severna Park were paid for with money collected in other districts."

    To add additional drama to the case, the County has already spent about $500,000 in legal fees defending itself and, the one of the homeowners' lead attorneys, Phillip Scheibe, is a former County Councilman and former County Attorney who advised John Gary (County Executive 1994-1998) on impact fees.

    One wonders if Mr. Scheibe, in his work for the County under Mr. Gary, didn't stumble onto spending "irregularities" and think that he had come upon a cash cow. After all, he and his partner were seeking $1.3 million (over $100k apiece per year) for their work on the case since 2000.

    Both sides say they will appeal, the homeowners' attorneys, because they think they should be receiving more money (over $30 million), and the County, because it lost.

    Given the fact that impact fees in the County desperately need to be raised to help offset some of the costs on new growth, much more oversight has to be given to the manner in which these dollars are spent, both to lessen the blow of development as well as avoid these costly imbroglios in the future.

    Labels: ,

  • Sunday, December 17, 2006

    Sea Level Rise Along Maryland Coast Faster Than Global Average

    According to a sea level rise model just released by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the US Geological Survey, sea level in the mid-Atlantic region could rise 2-3 feet by 2100 as a result of global warming and land subsidence. The Worcester County Sea Level Rise Inundation Model, which is part of a larger study of sea level rise in the mid-Atlantic area, predicts that the rate of sea level rise in the region will double or triple over the course of the next century, and that vast acreage of wetlands, as well as billions of dollars in waterfront real estate will be threatened as a result.

    Worcester County officials carefully considered the impacts of sea level rise and flooding in the process of drafting of the County's comprehensive plan this year, and even have in place a zoning overlay prohibiting development in the County's most flood-prone areas.

    As Executive Leopold and Anne Arundel County move into the re-consideration of the County's General Development Plan, sea level rise, the loss of wetlands, and the sensitive nature of our coastal boundary need to be given significant attention. Worcester County appears to be a model that we could learn from.

    As the Executive Director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, Dave Blazer, said, "It re-emphasizes the need to be careful what we do on the land in terms of development. If sea level rise is chipping away at the wetlands and marsh areas from the front side, we have to take extra care to make sure we aren’t chipping away at them from the back side.”

    Labels: ,

    Wednesday, December 13, 2006

    Dwyer Wins After Recount

    Anne Arundel County will be saddled with an embarassing Don Dwyer for at least 4 more years. Joan Cadden lost by 25 votes after the absentee and provisional ballots were recounted.

    Labels: ,

    Seven Candidates File for Aldermanic Seats

    Today's Sun provides coverage of the four individuals running for the Ward 8 seat vacated by Josh Cohen and the 3 people running for Wayne Taylor's Ward 4 seat.

    Labels: ,

    Monday, December 11, 2006

    The Bay and Global Warming

    The most recent edition of Chesapeake Quarterly explores the likely effects of global warming on the Bay.

    Labels: ,

    West County Wells Reveal More Heavy Metals

    Since finding high levels of heavy metal in several wells in the Gambrills area earlier in the year, the Health Department has now found lead levels above federal standards in three other nearby wells.

    So, what happens next? The County expands the testing zone a bit more, and is looking to sample 25 more wells in the Crofton and Gambrills areas. Meanwhile, nearby residents continue to drink from wells that are likely poisoned.

    Where are the metals coming from? Surprise, surprise:

    "The cause of the high lead levels has not been determined, but the wells are situated in path of groundwater that flows from a fly ash landfill site operated by the Reliable Contracting Co. Inc. and Constellation Energy Group at the BBSS Sand and Gravel Mine."

    It was certainly a brilliant idea to stockpile the groundwater re-charge area for much of Anne Arundel County with persistent poisons. I, for one, would not be surprised to see the presence of these heavy metals in wells considerably beyond the area currently being tested.

    The Capital's piece on the situation also reveals that rather than testing wells proactively, the County only tests them reactively, such as when a private owner alerts them to a problem. The County Health Officer, Frances Phillips, is apparently just beginning to get a clue, "This experience ... really does raise concern that we have to have a good understanding of what is in our groundwater. We really don’t have good data." You would think a lack of "good data" on potable water quality might be something that would have alarmed the Health Officer well in advance of this looming disaster, no?

    Labels: , ,

    Friday, December 08, 2006

    Annapolis Special Elections Set

    The primary to fill the Aldermanic seats vacated by Josh Cohen and Wayne Taylor in Annapolis' Wards 8 & 4 is set for January 2, 2007. The general election is set for January 30, 2007.

    Labels: ,

    Leopold Moves Quickly to Action on Firefighters and Environmental Protection

    Having been in office less than a full week, County Executive John Leopold is acting quickly to address some of the laxities that dogged the final days of the Owens' administration. First, Leopold tackled the issue of new firefighters skipping out of the re-payment of their training fees. Recruits who leave the department within 5 years of training are contractually bound to repay the training costs.

    Under Owens, Acting-Personnel Officer John O'Conner and Fire Chief Ronald Blackwell asserted that such repayment could hurt future recruiting. Frankly, to have required repayment in the contracts, and Department Directors expressing these views is preposterous. Requiring repayment makes sense. Why should Anne Arundel County train firefighters for other jurisdictions? Perhaps one solution is for the Department to hold back $2,000 of salary for each of the first five years of tenure at the Department, releasing it in $2,000 increments at the end of each year, basically like a bond, rather than having to track down and re-coup the money from truants.

    The recruitment and attrition problems at the Fire Department seem to go much deeper than this though. It's my sense that this Department is truly broken. There is often tension between the volunteers and career firefighters, there are horrendous problems with overtime, and the County has an attrition rate of 20 percent (compared to Baltimore, Montgomery, and Prince George's rates of 9 to 16 percent). Surely housing cost is an issue, but it's no cheaper to live in any of those jurisdictions. It's important for the public safety and the public coffers that Mr. Leopold and his new chief get a handle on this, soon.

    Shortly after the Board of Appeals decision on the Little Dobbins Island home, Mr. Leopold signed an executive order showing his commitment to cracking down on environmental violators. His order states that violations "such as polluting waters with soil or sediment, grading or disturbing land without sediment controls, and developing without a stormwater management plan" will be sent to the Maryland attorney general for prosecution. Leopold offered, "My administration will not tolerate construction activity in the Critical Area without the required permits. Violation of the environmental laws will trigger immediate action by this administration."

    For those of us focused on environmental conservation, Mr. Leopold also uttered some very important words: "[The land is not a mere commodity.] In fact, it is something to which we all belong. We are only stewards of the natural resources and we need to leave the land, if we can, in better shape for future generations."

    Let's hope they are words by which his administration will live.

    Labels: ,

    West County Federation Revives

    Today's Sun reports that the West County Federation of Civic Associations has pulled itself out of its slumber, and not a moment too soon. The organization finally crumbled in 2002 because of infighting over whether or not to support the 1.3 million square foot Arundel Mills Mall, but it had been weakened in prior years by the exodus of Crofton-area groups to the Greater Crofton Council. The planned range for the newly constituted Federation is east to west from Fort Meade to Laurel and north to south from the Jessup area to the Patuxent River.

    With BRAC coming to west county over the course of next decade, there are going to be extremely intense development pressures on the area, and citizens need to be poised, and prepared to make their positions known. Umbrella organizations like these can provide the solidarity required for the community to present a united front against well-funded and organized development interests. Some of the future issues facing west county include the possible addition of slots at the Laurel Park race tracks, the closure of the Oak Hill Youth Center (an 888-acre property near NSA), a proposed 1,600 home Ribera development, and the prospects for 78-acres of undeveloped land owned by the School Board.

    Labels: ,

    Wednesday, December 06, 2006

    DC Area Counties Move to Limit Growth, Developers Concerned

    Today's Post reports that three DC metro counties: Loudoun and Prince William in Virginia, and Montgomery in Maryland have either recently passed, or are looking to pass significant restrictions on growth. In Loudoun, new building rules will reduce by about half, the numbers of homes that can be built in the rolling piedmont that forms the western section of the County. In Prince William County, the board of supervisors voted through a one-year freeze on most subdivisions because of a lack of transportation funding. The Montgomery County Council president has introduced legislation to impose a moratorium on large developments until the adequacy of current infrastructure facilities can be assessed.

    Susan Matlick, director of the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, gets the priceless quote of the week award: "As far as we're concerned, it's just pandering to the electorate." Newsflash to Ms. Matlick, it's called "carrying out the will of the voters." It's nice to see politicians do it every once in a while.

    Anne Arundel would do well to learn from these three, particularly the Montgomery County model. In many parts of the County, facilities are simply not adequate to handle the new growth that is allowed.


    Leopold Vows to Continue Case Against Island Home

    One of John Leopold's first acts as County Executive suggests he possesses the nerve to proceed where his predecessor feared to tread. Throughout the election season, both Leopold and George Johnson heard continuously about the Little Dobbins Island house, and what an embarassment it had become. So, it comes as little surprise that Leopold declared that the County will continue its lawsuit against Mr. Wagner and went on the record with the Sun yesterday, saying "[the situation] has been a black eye for the county. It's my intent to do everything in my power to ensure that this does not reoccur."

    While Leopold has remained tight-lipped about the Board of Appeals decision, the Board continues to expose its ineptness in defending the Bay. Board Member Vance Remillard offered that it was not the Board's place to punish Mr. Wagner.

    No, of course not. Why would we expect this regulatory board, appointed by representatives of the citizenry to "punish" a man who constructed an island home in the critical area of Magothy River without permits? Unfortunately, the two members who understand their role on the board, Billy Moulden ("There is no entitlement to a variance") and Anthony V. Lamartina are outnumbered by rubes who see their job as rubber-stamping variance requests.

    The light at the end of this tunnel though, is that, according to the litigation director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, "There's plenty of room there for an appeal." Let's hope that CBF, the Magothy River Association, and the County will keep pursuing this effort to seek justice.

    Labels: , ,

    Tuesday, December 05, 2006

    The Board of Appeals Blows It

    Well, the Board of Appeals had the opportunity to make an example of the contractor who build his house on Little Dobbins Island without permits, but they punted. For all the talk about this being a country governed by "the rule of law", we see once again that if you've got enough money, a decent lawyer, and the plaintiff is the environment, the weak-kneed good ole' boys on the Board of Appeals will grant you your variance to the law.

    Board Member John Boring went so far as to offer, "Variances were put into the law so that variances could be granted." Raising of course, the question, "Why does the law exist if variances can be so readily obtained?" Essentially, under the current scheme, the only people not getting variances are those too poor to afford or not savvy enough to procure competent legal council to help them before the Hearing Officer or Board of Appeals.

    In the Little Dobbins case, the Board found 5-2 that Daryl Wagner's house "doesn't have a significantly greater environmental footprint than an earlier house on the island" and "that county mapping errors overstated the size of a critical waterfront buffer." Wagner had the gall to ask for a variance to build a new shed on the 2-acre island, and was denied that variance, and ordered to remove a pool, a gazebo, a patio and sidewalks.

    Little Dobbins before and after

    I doesn't require a PhD in ecology to figure out that the environmental footprint of the previous house was significantly less than Mr. Wagner's terraformed monstrosity, or that the Board of Appeals is a frighteningly ill-equipped corps to assist in the defense of the Bay. Aside from Board Chairman Anthony Lamartina and member William Moulden, we'd do well to see them all turned out with the inauguration of the new Council.


    Monday, December 04, 2006

    The Queen is Gone, Leopold Ascends

    Today's Capital covers the swearing in of new County Executive, John Leopold. He's got a big job ahead of him. Congratulations again to Mr. Leopold and the new Council.


    Little Dobbins Decision Tonight

    After weeks of hearings on the fate of Daryl Wagner's Little Dobbins Island home built without permits, the Board of Appeals will make its decision tonight. The vote will be open to the public and will be held tonight at 6pm at the County Council chambers at the Arundel Center, 44 Calvert St. in Annapolis.


    Newly Elected Officials Discuss Their Priorities

    The Sunday Sun has a piece on the newly elected Executive, Councilmembers, Sheriff and Register of Wills, and their respective priorities. Here's a summary:

  • Executive Leopold - "Revise the county's General Development Plan and strengthen the Adequate Public Facilities law so that the aggregate impact of developments is a consideration, instead of each development individually."
  • Councilman Jones (D1) - "Public safety and education are among his biggest issues, including properly providing services and paying employees. Linking transportation and a variety of services for disabled residents is another priority."
  • Councilman Benoit (D4) - "He wants to be an advocate for the county as it deals with the continued changes at Fort Meade and the growth they are expected to bring. Among his greatest concerns is the physical condition of the public schools."
  • Councilman Cohen (D6) - "He wants to strengthen environmental protections in the construction stages, and bring the county code in line with newer "green" environmental performance standards in the building industries."
  • Sheriff Bateman - "His priorities are dealing with warrants and with personnel."
  • Register of Wills Parker - "She wants to re-link Maryland's estate tax floor (the amount at which the estate tax becomes applicable) with that of the federal government."

    Labels: ,

  • Sunday, December 03, 2006

    Parting Thoughts on the Queen

    Sunday's Capital and Sun provide a brief synopses of the 8 years under outgoing County Executive Janet Owens.

    I'll provide my own over the course of the coming week.


    Saturday, December 02, 2006

    Healthy Air Act Spurs 2 Local Upgrades

    As a result of the Healthy Air Act, passed during the last legislative session, Constellation Energy will be required to upgrade its Brandon Shores and H.A. Wagner power plants in Pasadena. The legislation requires coal-burning plants in the state to dramatically reduce nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and mercury emissions.

    Constellation is aiming to have the multi-million dollar upgrades completed by 2010.

    It's good to see the impacts of such progressive, environmental legislation as the Healthy Air Act and Flush Fee making an important difference in Anne Arundel County.


    George Wins District 30 Race

    Barbara Samorajczyk (D) has decided to withdraw her request for a re-count and conceded the District 30 House of Delegates race to Ron George (R). George retains the seat, formerly held by Herb McMillan, for the Republicans.


    Friday, December 01, 2006

    Leopold Doubles Up on Callahan

    Executive-elect Leopold has decided to use Dennis Callahan to plug another hole in his administration, appointing him to the position of Chief Administrative Officer. The CAO is second in command to the Executive and oversees the Department of Public Works, the Department of Inspections and Permits, the police and fire departments, the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Department of Aging and Disabilities.

    Allowing Callahan to insinuate himself so deeply into his administration is certainly a questionable manuever. Appointing the belligerent Erik Robey, Ron Dillon's legislative aide, as Mr. Callahan's assistant, bodes even worse. Robey has surely been a loyal Republican foot soldier, serving as first vice chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, but his overly aggressive, and deeply conservative demeanor have always seemed at odds with Dillon's more moderate style. It appears to be a bone throne to local Republicans to ensure that the Democrat, Callahan, will be kept it check. If that's the case, there's little to worry about. Callahan stacks up considerably to the Right of Mr. Leopold as it is.

    Leopold also promoted Lois Villemaire to acting director of planning and zoning. To me, Ms. Villemaire is an unknown quantity. Any feedback on her planning outlook would be encouraged.

    Labels: ,