A weblog dedicated to exploring political, social, and environmental issues in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Leopold Looks to Increase Fines for Permit Violators
This week, Executive Leopold submitted legislation that would impose a $500 per day fine on individuals who live in homes built without permits. The move comes on the heels of the County's successful, recent effort to get a Pasadena man to vacate a structure he had built without permits, and its, thus far, unsuccessful attempts to get the owner of the Little Dobbins Island home to do so.
Tax Talk in Anne Arundel
This week there was quite a bit of tax-related talk in the County. Early on, Executive Leopold announced his effort to cut taxes for senior citizens. Leopold's bill, which would provide an average $30 property tax credit to low-income individuals, over 70, who have lived in their homes for at least 10 years would cost the County about $75,000 annually.
On the other end of things, Executive Leopold proposed to raise the taxes on car rentals in the County. The Executive and full Council are seeking authority from the State to have the option to levy the tax, which is projected could raise "several million dollars" a year. Reception within the County delegation has been mixed.
All of this gains increasing relevance given that the School Board has asked for a $133 million (17%) budget increase.
Flush Fee Funds Available for Septic Upgrades
It's been talked about for several years since the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund was initially passed. Now, it's apparently here. The County has money raised through the so-called "flush fee" to help homeowners offset the cost of upgrading to environmentally-friendly de-nitrifying septic systems. For more information, contact Anne Arundel’s Sanitary Engineering Program, 410-222-7193.
Saturday, February 24, 2007
Board of Appeals Appeal
Last week, former Board of Appeals member, Ray Jicka, had the following letter to the editor in the Capital defending his decision to grant a variance to Daryl Wagner's island home on the Magothy:
The Board of Appeals Decision on Little Dobbins Island had absolutely nothing to do with the legality of the structure on the property.
The Board did not grant permission to keep the house. What it did is to recognize the owner’s legal right to construct a dwelling on a grandfathered legal building lot.
In the Board’s Memorandum of Opinion, the first sentence of Chairman Anthony Lamartina’s denial of the variance: “The case before the Board is not whether a variance can and should be granted because the simple answer is yes.”
The variance granted is not about the house, but the environmental impact of impervious surfaces in the critical area. Whether or not the property is buffer exempt or not, the owner must have a variance to construct anything.
Legally, the owner has the right to apply for such a variance as long as he meets a number of extremely strict requirements. The most demanding is that the variance is “the minimum necessary for relief.”
In this case the amount of impervious surface that existed before the current construction was 3,005 square feet. Four of the five members of the Board voted to allow an extra 320 square feet for a boat ramp. The decision would require that the appellant remove everything in excess of this maximum.
This would include the demolition of the pool, patio, sidewalks, the “boat house,” and every other structure on the island. That leaves the appellant a whole 200 square feet of impervious surface to do with as he pleases.
The problem concerning Little Dobbins Island is not the legality of a granted variance. It’s the blatant and egregious disregard of County Code requirements for permits and the accompanying inspections to obtain a certificate of occupancy.
Having read it in the print edition, I didn't feel a particular need to comment on it here, and then I received an e-mail from Mr. Jicka, bringing it to my attention again. He insisted it was "the answer to the hysterical tree huggers." At that point, I expressed to him my disappoint in the Board's decision in no uncertain terms:
[What is recounted below was originally intended as a private email correspondence, until Mr. Jicka asked that it be published here]
You and several other members of the Board let down the public in your role on the Appeals Board. Granting 70%-80% of the variance requests that came before the Board was, frankly, a shameful display. Ms. Vitale [who had originally appointed Mr. Jicka, and did not re-appoint him] certainly [i]sn't a "hysterical tree hugger", and neither are the vast majority of County residents, most of whom saw that, rather than acting an entity to protect our collective resources, the last Board of Appeals acted as a rubber stamp on irresponsible development projects. If your decision haunts you, perhaps it should. Let's hope the new appointees exercise considerably more scrutiny than the outgoing members did.
He replied that I was not "a rational fair minded entity, [but one] that follows his emotions rather that his intellect and understands the law as it is written by the County Council."
I then replied:
What about the fact that granting a retroactive variance for such a blatantly inappropriate project in the critical area violates (§ 3-1-207. Standards for granting variance., subsection c, item 2v): "A variance may not be granted under subsection (a) or (b) unless the Board finds that the granting of the variance will not be detrimental to the public welfare."?
Don't you think the dimunition of trust in Anne Arundel County government that has resulted in allowing such an egregious project to stand has been a "detriment to the public welfare?" That's to say nothing of the other environmentally damaging ways that this project has been "detrimental to the public welfare."
Merely because you, and several of your colleagues chose to take the most favorable interpretation of that statement on behalf of the developer, as you so often did, does not mean that others could not have taken a broader, more community-minded approach.
"A variance may not be..." Come on, the code approved by your County Council - did not say shall not be... If you don't like the law, lobby to change it. The Board followed the law as it is written.
The Board interpreted the law in the most liberal manner possible. The Board would have been on solid legal footing rejecting the variance.
There's no question, this whole matter should not be laid at the foot of the Board, as you say, the Council played an important role. But, it is my assessment that the Board felt [sic] short of its responsibility to county residents.
Indeed! There's no question, this whole matter should not be laid at the foot of the Board, as you say, the Council played an important role. Why then, have you and the other "tree huggers" so excoriated the Board in this matter. We were, I repeat, following the law as it is written. If you don't like the law, lobby to change it. Do not make the Board the total villain in this unfortunate circumstance.
So, in closing, I think that Mr. Jicka and I are in agreement on the point that both the County Council and Board of Appeals share blame for the ridiculously poor way in which the Little Dobbins Island home case has been handled.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Councilman Cohen Gets a Blog
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
State of the Magothy - 2007
This evening, Dr. Peter Bergstrom will present the annual State of the Magothy report at Anne Arundel Community College. According to an initial release, the dark false mussels that had been thriving in the River for the past several years have died off. This has lead to cloudier water in the River and a decline in the coverage of sub-aquatic vegetation, from 310 acres last year to the current 250 acres.
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Stormwater, Stormwater Everywhere, and Not a Drop for the Cows to Drink
Sunday's Sun relays the unfortunate, though not uncommon, consequences of poor stormwater design, and the comedy of errors that can ensue trying to correct it. It's a tale about a Prince George's farmer, Joseph Mills, whose creek dried up after a development went in upstream, and who has been forced to resort to watering his cattle from a fire hydrant as a result.
The ironically named Oasis Farms, an 1,800 home, mixed use community outside Bowie, put in a 6-acre farm pond, with the Army Corps of Engineers assent, to detain stormwater runoff from the property. Problem is, the stormwater that fell on that site prior to development and was converted into groundwater provided base flow for Mr. Mills' stream, an unnamed tributary of the Patuxent River.
The developer, General Growth insists it did nothing wrong, and the regulators, who unanimously approved the plans, are falling all over themselves to pin responsibility for the matter on each other. Despite the fact that, "the plan pointed out there would be both temporary and permanent changes to the way in which water drained off the land," it was approved.
And that was only the beginning. The stormwater pond not only caused the stream to dry up, it also starved a downstream wetland of water. A wetland drained of water isn't particularly good habitat, and scores of turtles, frogs, and snakes that had inhabitated it were crushed on the road seeking wetter pastures. At this point, you may ask: "Couldn't they just drain the pond?" No, they can't, because now it's polluted.
So what is the solution proposed by regulators? Drill a well and pump up groundwater to the surface to flood the area again. Nevermind the fact that that's probably only going to worsen the problem since it originated with loss of groundwater re-charge in the first place. (Some other regulators apparently suggested conveying stormwater from elsewhere into the stream, of course a bad idea because it is loaded with pollutants).
So what is the correct solution? The right solution now is the same as it was before the development went in and what it should have been required of the development itself: Use infiltration systems, like bioretention areas throughout the community to convert stormwater to groundwater. These methods, which are one component of low impact development were actually honed in Prince George's County and, the Low Impact Development Center, a clearinghouse on low impact development, is based in Beltsville.
Maryland counties have the capacity to require that low impact development methods and infiltration be used on every new development project. Why do we continue to settle for less?
Annapolis Visionaries Take Their Tastes to Charm City
Local entrepreneurs Jody Danek and Gavin Buckley are taking their restaurants Tsunami and Lemongrass to Baltimore. Have no fear, they're keeping their existing restaurants in Annapolis. They will be opening a 250-seat Lemongrass, serving Thai food, and 180-seat Tsunami, serving Japanese, at the Inner Harbor location of the Tack Factory on Bank Street. Good luck in this new endeavor, though I doubt they'll need it.
"Ballstonization", One Salve for Sprawl
Today's Post has an interesting article on what, at this point, should be fairly common sense: The areas surrounding Metro stations in the DC region should be high-density, walkable, mixed-use communities. The prime example of the successfulness of this model is Ballston, VA.
Some are perplexed as to how bringing more people to a community could possibly reduce congestion, but the reality is, in a well-connected neighborhood, like those surrounding metro stations, once a critical mass is achieved, businesses and amenities can sustain themselves largely based on the foot traffic from the area, and individuals are able to work either in their community, or within the range of public transit, reducing the need for car trips.
We know building more roads isn't the solution, and given that each of these metro stops represents tens of millions of dollars in public investment, it's important that we take full advantage of these resources and focus growth where it makes sense.
Friday, February 16, 2007
Green Fund Bill Proposed
Monday, February 12, 2007
Extraordinary Measures to Eradicate Invasives
This month's Bay Journal covers the painstaking efforts that some groups are undertaking to take back their forests from invasive plant species. A group called Earth Sangha mobilizes up to 500 volunteers to maintain Fairfax County parks by ripping out English Ivy, garlic mustard, and japanese honeysuckle on a regular basis.
How can you identify invasives? If you happen to wander into your local woodland this time of year, anything green that isn't a christmas fern or evergreen tree is most likely invasive.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
DeGrange Has Change of Heart
I think it's sweet that Senator DeGrange has decided he's so secure in his defense of "property rights" that he can sponser a bill and announce it to the world on the editorial page of the Sun. Too bad, when it mattered most, he voted to allow Baltimore County to steal the homes of working class residents in 2000.
Terrapins Threatened Despite Harvest Restrictions
Poor data quality from the past cloud's the issue, but according to the new numbers available, the harvest of terrapins jumped over 2000% from 2005 to 2006. Prior to State restrictions on harvest in 2005, about 760 lbs of terrapin were harvested. In 2006, over 17,472 of terrapin were taken, made up largely of small males and sub-adult females.
The diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) is the State reptile and a critical component of Bay ecosystems. Isn't it time we put a harvest ban in place, at least until we can get an accurate census of the current population?
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Voluntary Strategies, Regulation, and the Patuxent
Dennis King, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, has published an interesting paper in the Bay Journal focusing "on why government decisions have so little influence on the millions of land and water-use decisions that do have a direct effect on the health of the [Patuxent] river." His conclusion is that, in essence, unless lawmakers find the spines to implement "hard strategies" which create expectations among individuals in the watershed that: "a) their individual decisions to comply with environmental laws will contribute to a collective effort to restore the health of the river that may succeed, and b) their individual decisions to ignore environmental laws will be detected, and that they will be prosecuted and penalized," the health of river and the Bay will continue to decline.
As Usual, Tutman Gets It Right
The Patuxent River and the environmental community in Maryland are lucky to have Fred Tutman as the Patuxent Riverkeeper. Fred is one of the most eloquent, intelligent defenders of the environment, and his piece in the Capital, "Property rights and our busted ecology" hits the bullseye. A must read.
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Ward 4 Results Spur Democratic Reflection
The closeness of the election results in the recent Ward 4 aldermanic race, where Anne Arundel Teachers' Union head Sheila Finlayson (D) narrowly bested relative unknown, James Conley (R) 247 to 212 has some in local Democratic circles re-considering their place in the Ward. The results are all the more surprising given that Finlayson had local political savant, Kathy Nieberding, managing her campaign. Nieberding, who managed both of Ellen Moyer's successful campaigns for Mayor, is the closest thing the City of Annapolis has to a true political strategist.
Saturday, February 03, 2007
Sea Level Rise and the Chesapeake Region
Friday, February 02, 2007
Economic Analysis of Healthy Air Act Released
The bill, passed during the 2005 legislative session, required that an economic analysis of the impacts be done. The report [pdf] has just been released. Key findings (via the Capital):
Odenton Developers Decide to Play Hard Ball
Jay Baldwin, president of Reliable Contracting, and John Stamato, of Ribera Development are threatening to build 500,000 square feet of warehouse space on 50 acres in Odenton if they don't get the zoning on their property changed to changed to mixed use. The property is currently zoned for industrial use.
Annapolis' Housing Authority Gets a Bright Idea
In the midst of increasing energy prices, Annapolis Public Housing Authority recently took an important step in reducing its bill to BGE: It transferred some of the responsibility for energy costs to the tenants. Public housing residents are still provided with a stipend based on the size of their unit, but they are responsible for paying the energy costs that exceed that amount. Previously, residents had no incentive to conserve or use energy wisely.
I suspect the significant hikes in BGE's rates will have a similar effect on the population at large.
Thursday, February 01, 2007
Building "Green" in Alexandria
Global Warming Report Assert Human Role in Climate Change
For those still in doubt, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is apparently about to release a report that it is "very likely" (90 percent certain) that "humans are aggravating any natural warming by burning fossil fuels, which release carbon into the atmosphere and add to the greenhouse effect around Earth."
Anticipated findings from the report:
[UPDATE 2/2/07: The full report has been released [pdf].]
Labels: Global Climate Change
Slots in Anne Arundel? Thank Janet Owens
Today's Sun answers a question I've had for some time: Why are those contraptions in local bingo parlors that look like slot machines and sound like slot machines not considered slot machines under state law? Turns out a measure introduced in 2005 by then-Executive Janet Owens, and passed by the County Council 6-1 (only Barbara Samorajczyk voted against) opened the door for the pseudo-slots.
Surely, it had nothing to do with the fact that Ms. Owens received "campaign contributions of $2,000 apiece in 2004 from the owners of Delta Bingo and Bingo World, and she shares South County roots with the Wayson family, which owns the third [bingo] hall."
The legislation gave the Director of the Department of Inspections and Permitting, then Spurge Eismeier, the power to approve video bingo machines, which he did. As his Department turned a blind eye to homes and additions being built across the County without permits, Mr. Eismeier approved four models of video "pull-tab" machines.
Dumbfounded by the actual impact of the bill that he had voted for, Severn Republican Ed Middlebrooks offered, "I don't think you are going to talk to anyone who will say that that was the intended consequence."
If that's the case, it shouldn't be at all difficult to muster the votes to overturn this slots-enabling legislation, and put one more vestige of Janet Owens' favoritism behind us.
[UPDATE 2/2/07: The Sun's piece prompts Leopold to seek second opinions on pseudo-slots venues in the County.]