Monday, December 31, 2007

Capital Homicides

The nine murders in Annapolis this year mark an unfortunate record. The Capital has deemed it the top local story of 2007, and I'm inclined to agree. The nonchalance with which this sort of violence is accepted by both the City and the communities in which it is occurring is increasingly frustrating.

Details describing the victims and their murderers (where they have been identified) can be found here.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Eradicating English Ivy

Many people plant English ivy (Hedera helix) in their yard thinking that it's a nice, easy-to-maintain, evergreen ground cover, or will help stabilize steep slopes (it won't). They're correct that it's low maintenance and green year round, and that's part of the problem. The plant, which is native to western Asia, north Africa, and parts of Europe has found a very comfortable home in the eastern US, and spreads aggressively, shading out native seedlings and strangling mature trees, as in the picture below:

This is the perfect time of year to begin an eradication plan. English ivy can be removed mechanically (i.e. by hand) fairly easily as the tendrils are shallow-rooted and will come up in clumps if yanked. If you have ivy climbing trees, as in the photo above, girdle each of the vines around the circumference of the tree. By the spring or summer, the vines should be dead and will be much easier to remove.

Like any invasive control effort, if the plant is established in your yard, it may take two or three rounds to get it removed completely, but once you do, you will have made a much more hospitable environment for native plants and done an important part in cleaning up our region.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Comparing County Tax Rates

While making my way around other state blogs, I came across this informative tax table from the Maryland Department of Taxation and Assessments.

There's an awful lot of discussion about Anne Arundel being a "tax cap, tax averse" County. In fact, the County Executive seems to rattle it off at this point like it's second nature. So, just how "taxed" is Anne Arundel County relative to other jurisdictions in the State?

Let's begin with size. With an estimated population of 509,300 in 2006, Anne Arundel County is the fifth largest of 24 County size jurisdictions in Maryland (smaller than only Montgomery, Prince George's, and Baltimore Counties, and Baltimore City).

At $.87/$100 of assessed value, our real property tax rate is 8th lowest in the State. Our personal income tax rate, the so-called "piggyback" tax, is 2.56%, the 3rd lowest in the State. Only Worcester and Talbot Counties, with less than 1/10 the population have lower rates in Maryland.

We may well be "tax averse", after all, I can't say I've ever met anyone who relished paying taxes, but for anyone to assert that we are "overtaxed", particularly compared to other jurisdictions in the State, is not accurate1.

To my knowledge, we still have an enormous school maintenance backlog (it was $1.5 billion 18 months ago), perhaps it's time to consider bumping up the piggyback tax to fix our schools before we have any more embarrassing situations like the one that occurred with Severna Park High School in 2006.

1 I will say, however, that taxes in Baltimore City are out of hand. What do you get for a property tax rate ($2.268/$100 assessed) that is more than double the next highest in the State and a personal income tax rate (3.05%) that is 7th highest? Atrocious schools, failing infrastructure, and two murders every three days. Something needs to change in Maryland's biggest city.

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Historic Eastport in Pictures

As is so often the case, wonderful treasures that give us a glimpse back into the past of our beloved region were sitting buried away in someone's forgotten storage pile.

Thankfully, when the owner's of the Dawson Gallery came across their stack of photos of 1930s Annapolis and Eastport, they turned them over to historian Ginger Doyel, who is working on an historical account of Eastport. Some of the photos, taken by Annapolis photographer Howard Hayman, and additional details can be found on the Capital on-line here.


Friday, December 28, 2007

Leopold Vows Firm Stand on Impact Fees

Today's Sun has an article on decreasing home sales in the County, dovetailing that finding with Executive Leopold's increasingly firm stand in favor of a significant increase in impact fees. Predictably, the homebuilders got on the record mewling that "higher impact fees would limit their opportunities to provide affordable housing." Leopold responded, with all that really needs to be said about that laugher, "the enormous success of the homebuilding industry in the previous few years has not produced a significant increase in work-force housing units." In fact, I'm pretty hard pressed to identify any "work-force" housing units that have been produced in the County, outside the few theoretically mandated by the City of Annapolis.

It's a wonder these people can sleep at night. Put an inclusionary zoning bill in front of them for their endorsement and they send their top shill to the County Council to fight it tooth and nail. Tell them you are going to make new development pay its own way, and they try to paint you as an "opponent of workforce housing." "Shameless" doesn't even begin to describe these folks.

Let us hope that the County Executive can stand firm, and that the Council can stand behind him, in his effort to expand impact fees to include at least 100% of road and school related impacts. We can be assured that the development community will be bankrolling the opposition.

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Dairy Farm Dithering

The ink has hardly dried on the County's contract with the Naval Academy for the former Gambrills Dairy Farm, and already local residents are "worried" about the fate of the farm. The terms of the lease require the County to pay $320,000 (about $373/acre) per year to rent the farm, paid on a ongoing basis. Wisely, and perhaps by legal mandate, Executive Leopold and Councilman Benoit, have refused to tie the hands of future administrations by guaranteeing that the County will hold on to the property for the full term, even though each has said it has every intention of doing so.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't think you'll find a more vocal proponent of keeping the farm in agricultural use. I repeatedly denounced efforts to turn the farm into a horse stadium and sand mine. But, this latest Capital piece, and other recent appearances by some of the residents who live around the farm have left me cold.

County taxpayers will likely have shelled out well over $7 million for the rent on the site by the time the contract is up, and every one of us has a right to see some benefit from the property. I truly hope that the County will open the farm to community agricultural plots and opportunities for passive recreation and hiking. And, I hope local residents can stand down and stop looking this gift horse farm in the mouth.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Treating Oysters Like Royalty

Today's Capital reports that a local inventor, Andrew Murdza, has devised a new way to raise oysters to help replenish the Bay's decimated bivalve population. Murdza founded Oyster King several years ago and established a base of operations at Discovery Village in Shady Side.

He is now selling "Oyster Hotels", cages filled with barley straw to help filter contaminants, to house oyster spat and protect them from predators.

Mr. Murdza's initial tests have yielded excellent short term (6 month) survivability and he looks forward to eventually spawning 50 million baby oysters to help re-stock the Bay. His method of growing oysters at the water's surface mimics the well-documented accounts of European settlers who first came upon the Bay. For instance, when Captain John Smith explored the Bay in the early 1600s, oyster reefs broke the water's surface and were often deemed "hazards to navigation." One is left to contemplate not only the role that these massive reefs historically played in oyster propagation, but also in protecting the shoreline from high wave energies.

Curiously, the cost of the Oyster Hotels is $500 apiece, which corresponds exactly to the upper limit the State will reimburse homeowners for placing oyster aquaculture floats on their property. Oyster gardening supplies can be purchased from a wide variety of suppliers. A partial listing can be found here.

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Whole Foods Bags Plastics

Despite a public relations campaign that extended to interviews with the highest echelons of the national press, Annapolis Alderman Sam Shropshire was unable to muster the votes necessary to get his plastic bag ban bill passed in the Annapolis City Council. At the same time, however, the Whole Foods in Annapolis voluntarily stopped offering plastic bags.

Now, the entire corporation is looking to phase out plastic bags by early 2008. The company will still offer 100% recycled content paper bags and will sell reusable "Better Bags", made from 80% recycled plastic bottles.

The move represents a welcome trend in the retail sector, to move away from disposable bags and packaging to reusable materials. Other retailers, such as Ikea, are now charging customers 5 cents per bag.

Surely, there are those who will object to such a move, claiming that it limits their choices unfairly, or that they got good use out of those plastic bags. And there may be some truth to that, but there is no good reason that all consumers, particularly those who bring their own satchels, should be subsidizing the cost of everyone else's "doggy bags."

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Bay Clean-Up Estimates Too Optimistic, If You Can Believe It

A recent analysis of Bay pollution reduction models by the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) found that half (18) over-estimated progress, most of the rest (15) were accurate, and a few more (3) under-estimated progress. I suspect this isn't much of a surprise to anyone who has spent any prolonged length of time around the Bay in the last decade or so. Despite undeniable and important advances (e.g, the flush fee), the region continues to grow astronomically, with ever-changing consequences.

The Program models seem to be relatively accurate in the case of point source pollution (e.g., sewage treatment plants), where a discrete discharge can be easily measured, but pollution from non-point sources, like farm fields, or septic systems is difficult to accurately gauge. In those instances, data from case studies has to be extrapolated to a much wider set of circumstances, and errors in the case study, or the appropriateness of the wider application, can skew the results wildly.

To reduce the margin of error in the models, CBP is doing experimental work on a number of pollution controls and best management practices. That data should be available by the end of 2008.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Recycling Your Tree - Recycled

From the archives: What to do with your Christmas Tree after the holiday.

Talking Trash

Yesterday's Sun reports that with trash disposal contracts coming up for renewal in the not to distant future, Anne Arundel and Howard Counties are contemplating options to reduce their waste stream. The County's waste disposal contract with Waste Management Inc . expires in 5 years, and it is expected that disposal fees could double or triple from the current $33/ton when the contract is renewed.

Howard County has started a pilot program to roll out 5,000 wheeled recycling carts to residents to try to encourage additional recycling, and has seen an 18% increase in tonnage in 3 months. Anne Arundel County has funded two additional positions to boost the number of recycling workers (still only half the number of the residential waste staff), and Executive Leopold is apparently planning a County bill to "push" commercial firms to recycle more.

Widespread commercial recycling would certainly be a good start, but how about also inverting the waste pick-up schedule? That is, having recycling pick-up twice a week and reducing garbage pick-up to once a week. Think about it, if you pull the paper, glass, metal, and recyclable plastics out of the waste stream, and compost all the organics, the amount of garbage produced by a household drops tremendously, and our landfills will last much longer.

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Simple Gifts

I heard this tune again recently, and was reminded what a delightful sentiment that it is, particularly during this time of year:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,

To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

A Shaker dance song, written by Elder Joseph Brackett (1848)


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Annapolis Blogs

It's been almost 4 years since Blog Arundel began, and in that time, some pretty impressive blogs have popped up in the area. The City of Annapolis, in particular, is well represented. Here are some of the prominent (and prolific) blogs focused on life in the City:

  • Annapolis Capital Punishment - Written by former Democratic candidate for Ward 8 Alderman, Paul Foer, this blog takes aim at Republicans and Democrats alike, with particular focus on the sitting Mayor.
  • Annapolis Politics - Although written by Brian Gill, a local Republican activist, and possessing a consistently conservative bent, Brian's blog is a wealth of information on current events in the City. Let's hope he can keep it up after he moves out in January 2008.
  • I Live on Clay Street - Written by local community activist Timm Kostenko (aka Timmy Grins), this blog provides illuminating insights into a poorly understood neighborhood. Timm has taken on the bold charge of trying to clean up Clay Street and we wish him all the luck.
  • Talk of Annapolis - Written by local Republican (former Democratic) activist, Scott Bowling. The newest of the Annapolis blogs, it's a solid supplement to the rest.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Flush Fee In Action II

When the Bay Restoration Fund (aka The Flush Fee) was passed in 2004 by the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Ehrlich, there was great hope for the impact it would have. Several years on, we are now seeing the results of its implementation.

Today's Capital discusses the progress that has been made as a result of the $30/year/home fee on wastewater. All of the Anne Arundel County wastewater treatment plants are slated to be upgraded to "ehanced nutrient removal", at least in part with the assistance of flush fee funds, by 2011. According to the Capital report, some $111,760,000 from the flush will be spent in Anne Arundel County on the collective treatment plant upgrades.

There is also flush fee grant money available through the Anne Arundel County Health Department for upgrading septic systems. Sadly, only about 50 homeowners in the County have taken advantage of the program so far.

Regardless, the program seems to be working well. According to MDE estimates, the current upgrades have led to an annual reduction of nearly 700,000 pounds of nitrogen and nearly 80,000 pounds of phosphorus, and it's estimated that nitrogen will be reduced by 7.5 million pounds per year once all the plants are upgraded.

The success of this model reinforces the notion that in order for infrastructure upgrades to get the funding and attention they deserve, they need a dedicated funding source with an ongoing revenue stream. Counting on politicians to fund maintenance, whether it be for wastewater or stormwater, through the general fund, is pollyannaism at its highest.

* Added Bonus: 6 Common 'Flush Fee' Myths - From CBF

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Impact Fee Suit to Continue

The failures of the Owens' Administration continue to haunt the County as the latest twist in the unspent impact fee saga unfolds. Circuit Court Judge Paul Harris ruled earlier this week that two former County officials can remain in their case charging that Anne Arundel County misspent (or failed to spend appropriately) impact fees collected during the Owens' Administration. The suit revolved around an argument, made by the Ethics Commission, that the two officials, former County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe and Robert J. Dvorak, a former top administrator, had used inside knowledge of the impact fee program to try to make money by suing the County after leaving their jobs in the late 1990s.

Schiebe and Dvorak have contended that the Ethics Commission suit, brought in 2004, was politically motivated, and they're probably right. They embarrassed the Owens' Administration pretty badly. Of course, they weren't content to use their inside knowledge of the mis-administration of impact fee funds to try to correct the program. They've instead seized on a golden opportunity to try to make a buck and raid the funds collected through the program.

And we, the taxpayers of Anne Arundel County, get to continue reaping the consequences of people like Janet Owens, Phillip Scheibe, and Robert Dvorak "serving the public."

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Invasives Report Released

The Environmental Law Institute just released a report on "Halting the Invasion in the Chesapeake Bay: Preventing Aquatic Invasive Species Introduction through Regional Cooperation". May be worth a read.


Paone Wins Ward 2 Seat

Anne Arundel County Prosecutor, Fred Paone (R), won yesterday's special election in Ward 2 with a plurality of the vote. Vote totals (and percentages) are below:

Paone (R) 427 (45%)
McKerrow (D) 358 (38%)
Jennings (G) 162 (17%)

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Developers Seek to Erode School Protections

According to today's Capital, the County Council is seeking to "address" crowded schools. Of course, for the development community pushing the bill, "address" means "remove the school capacity related obstructions to new home construction by any means necessary." Council members Dillon, Vitale, and Benoit are developing a new methodology for determining school capacity, which is more responsive to demographic changes, and that is a good thing.

However, simultaneously, the eerily named Alliance for Fair Land Use, has been lobbying, persistently, to drop the adequacy of public facilities requirements for "small property owners." John Pantelides, paid lobbyist for the development community, and head of the Alliance has been trotting out every Tom, Dick, and Harry, who has had to wait to develop a parcel for his long lost son/daughter because of overcrowded schools, at Council meetings for the past several months.

It truly is a shame when people are asked to abide the law, isn't it? Especially when it's a law that is intended to protect school children from an overcrowded learning environment. Instead, Mr. Pantelides and his funders would like the Council to exempt developments of 5 or fewer homes from the school capacity test. I ask you, to the kids of current taxpayers sitting in already crowded schools, what difference does it make whether additional kids are coming from 5 house subdivisions or 20 house ones?

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Patuxent 20/20

Yesterday, the Patuxent Riverkeeper released its latest report [pdf] on the health of the Patuxent River.

Among the recommendations the report makes to restore the health of the river, are:

  • Implement low-impact development strategies based on the Stormwater Management Act of 2007 [pdf].
  • Create a dedicated fund for stormwater retrofits.
  • Increase permit staff overseeing sediment and erosion control and stormwater management.
  • Reduce use of fertilizers.
  • Limit the use of septic systems in new developments.
  • Maintain full funding for Program Open Space.
  • Increase impact fees and wetland permit fees.
  • Ensure that major wastewater treatment plants are upgraded by 2010.
  • Increase funding for, and use of agricultural best management practices (BMPs).
  • Increase public transportation options.
  • Adopt total maximum daily load limits (TMDLs) for the river and enforce them.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Mayor Proposes Green Building Standards

On the heels of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' call for green building standards throughout the region, Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer has introduced a bill that would "require all new construction and major renovations of any buildings greater than 10,000 square feet meet green building standards set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system."

The bill would require that new homes, and major home renovations meet at least minimal LEED standards as well.

The public hearing on the bill will take place in January 2008. If passed, Annapolis will join Washington, DC and Montgomery County, MD as local jurisdictions requiring some sort of green building standards.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Annapolis Gun Project?

In the wake of yet another shooting in the City of Annapolis, again in one of the public housing neighborhoods, it's long past time to start wondering if we shouldn't change the way that we approach violence in our communities, particularly drug-related violence. The capacity of local municipalities to affect the supply side of the drug equation is essentially nil, which to my mind, is a good thing. It's a waste of time and money.

So what can Annapolis and Anne Arundel County do on the demand side, and how might they be able to reduce the violence associated with drugs? Let's not forget that 8 people have been murdered in Annapolis so far this year (and an astounding 269 murders have occurred in Baltimore in 2007).

One program that has been remarkably effective elsewhere is the Boston Gun Project, which has focused on getting young gang/drug trade involved men to put down their guns by involving local clergy, the law enforcement staff, and community leaders in an "intervention" of sorts. The full results of the program in Boston can be found here [pdf], but even a sampling is impressive: a 63% reduction in youth homicides, a 32% decrease in "shots fired" calls, and a 25% decrease in gun assaults. My only question is: why aren't we trying this here? Why aren't we trying this everywhere?

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Court of Appeals Ruling Threatens Vital Wetlands

Earlier this week, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled [pdf] against the Olde Severna Park Improvement Association, and for homeowners wanting to build a 610-foot bridge/pier across extremely sensitive wetlands on the Severn River.

The decision essentially set forth that waterfront homeowners have riparian rights unless they are expressly excluded in the deed.

The particular significance of this decision is that in this case, the proposed bridge/pier spans a highly sensitive wetland called a bog. The area is also adjacent to one of the County's gems, a forest protected by the Nature Conservancy.

Here's hoping that MDE or the good sense of the new homeowners will prevail, and this bridge to nowhere will never get built.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dairy Farm Saved

On Monday night, the Council took the final step in approving the County's 30-year lease of the Naval Academy Dairy Farm. The County intends to keep renting some of the property out to Maryland Sunrise Organic Farm, and will likely make community parcels available to County residents at some point in the future. Also discussed for the site are passive recreational opportunities for hikers, bird watchers, and horseback riders.

The County is wise to protect this 857-acre parcel for as long as it can.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Council Fumbles SMART Fee

Last night's Council meeting was surely one of the lower points in recent County Council history. With scores of individuals testifying on behalf of the amended SMART fund (over 60 by the Capital's estimate) and only a handful speaking against, the four councilmembers who have opposed the bill since its inception, stood firm. The result likely is that we'll be without a stormwater bill until one of the other Council members (e.g., Reilly or Vitale) or the County Executive can introduce a bill that's going to stroke their ego, that is "theirs."

The Sun's take.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Bay Scores Lower than Last Year

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation just released its 2007 State of the Bay Report, and the results aren't good. This year's score is 28 out of 100, one point lower than last year's score. Three of 13 indicators fell, phosphorus, blue crabs, and water clarity.

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Gilchrest Speaks Up for Menhaden

At this point, the news is a bit dated (it happened in November), but it still deserves comment (and praise). Congressman Wayne Gilchrest, who represents the eastern shore of Maryland, and a small area of the western shore in District 1, has introduced legislation that would create a 5-year moratorium on menhaden fishing on the east coast.

As has been addressed here in the past, the gluttonous Omega Protein, running ships out of Reedville, VA continues to harvest unsustainable numbers of menhaden, a filter feeder, from the Bay for use in its vitamin and animal food products.

At this point, it's clear that Virginia is not going to reign in this industry, so it's good to see Mr. Gilchrest attempting to bring the federal government in to stop this abuse of our shared resource.

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Lawsuit Filed in Fly Ash Case

On Friday, the Sun reported that one of the families in Gambrills that has been affected by the toxic groundwater plume caused by fly ash contamination has filed suit against Constellation Energy, claiming the contaminated water killed her husband. It's a good first step. Litigation against MDE and the Anne Arundel County Health Department for criminal negligence and the sand mine for its complicity should probably be considered as well.

It's unfortunate, but too often legal action is the only way to move corporate or government entities to do the right thing.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

County Executive to Take Up Impact Fees

It's no secret that the last County Administration acted irresponsibly, bending to the will of the development community, and refusing to raise impact fees to the level recommended by the County's consultant. In fact, the fee was levied at about 40% of the recommended level. County Executive Leopold has decided to re-examine the fee structure, and it looks like we may finally get the fee hike we need.

The most recent consultant report puts the current fee for a single-family residence ($4,500) at about one quarter of where it should be ($20,000) according to the County Executive in the Capital report. The two examples given in the article are that builders currently pay $969 and $3,810 for road and school impacts respectively, when their actual costs to us, the taxpayers are $11,000 and $18,000+.

I would like to implore the County Executive to follow Montgomery County's lead (they just bumped up their fees to cover 90% of the actual cost of new development), and do them one better. Our new fees should cover 100% of the costs of new development, and be tied to inflation, so this issue need not be revisited anew every couple of years.

The current situation can't persist. It is a sick, downward spiral where existing residents shoulder the financial burden for development that most of us don't want.

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