Thursday, January 31, 2008

Perspective on Chesapeake Science Point

Last week's post on Chesapeake Science Point (CSP), a County charter school, drew this thoughtful response from a reader close to the issue:

It has indeed been a tough month at the Chesapeake Science School. The administration and teachers are spread too thin while they deal with students whose behavior more closely resembles characters from the Lord of the Flies than what you would expect from students who attain high test scores. The school has lost their principal and one of the most important teachers they had. Anne Arundel County certainly has put this school under a larger microscope than that used on any other school but I do not believe it is a fair portrayal to cast AACPS as the wicked step-mother and CSP as the Cinderella.

The reason that these students score so highly is not out of any particular innate intelligence but is a result of the extreme dedication and willingness to work far beyond reasonable expectations of some of the teachers and administration. Free tutoring has been offered on weekends, after school, into the evenings, and even during overnight "sleep overs" held in the school. Teachers are encouraged to give more than they can possibly ever get back - and many of the folks working at CSP have done so willingly. Not all teachers have been willing to work to this point, preferring to do their job well and leave it at that.

Another problem that has contributed to some teacher burnout as well as to the current increase in unacceptable student behavior has been the lack of a serious disciplinary policy at the administrative level. Thus, the irony of Mr. Kandil being removed for "punishing" a student with push ups. This lack of a serious disciplinary program can also be viewed as a plus as it has allowed many students to stay in school after committing acts that would surely have spelled expulsion at most other schools.

Many of the students are generally disrespectful to the same teachers who work so hard for them. While it is wonderful to see that parents showed up to support the school - and the teachers love each and every one of them, missing were the large number of parents who believe that every failure and behavioral issue is the fault of the teachers and the school. If you are a parent and do not want to instill morals, manners and work habits into your student - CSP is the best chance your child has, because of teacher dedication. Of course, the concerned parents are giving their children the best of both worlds.

Now, teachers are working longer, and recently, harder hours than they are at other county schools. CSP has known for years now that they needed to hire a certified special education teacher yet they stopped looking this year after hiring a provisional teacher who had literally no training in special ed but did have a bachelor's degree in psychology. Is this an issue that can be compromised on? No - it is a federally mandated situation that AACPS is ultimately responsible for. Has the lack of a well-trained special education teacher put more stress on the teachers in the classroom who have had to modify lesson plans on their own while trying their best to meet the needs of the special education population? Yes, of course. The teachers were all told that everything was under control regarding their responsibility to convince the auditors that they are a school that can run just fine by themselves, thank you. To find out that something as obvious as the need for a certified, knowledgeable special education teacher was not being actively pursued is negatively impacting members of the faculty who feel misled. As to the question of facilities one must be aware that some of the classrooms at CSP are far too small to accomodate the 22 students that are crammed into them already. The school is currently physically pushed as far as it can possibly go. The desire to add a grade each year means that the need for a new facility has been on the board for quite a while. This is not a new issue.

Is Anne Arundel County Public School system one rife with many rude and inefficient staff members? Yes, Are they out of bounds in giving this school one month to get their ducks in a row on issues that have long been clear to both parties? No way.

When you consider that the school is now being run by administrators and teachers who have no idea if they have a job next year, that student behavior has taken a clear and dramatic downturn which must be dealt with by these teachers, that some parents who have anxiety are taking it out on their favorite targets - the teachers - and that these are all unnecessary results of poor planning on the parts of the CSP board and principal one can begin to understand why the county is actually doing the right thing here.

CSP has great potential. It also has many serious problems that must be addressed to help this school reach that potential. That AACPS has already poured more than a fair share of money, time, and energy into helping this school get it together is being ignored when everyone cries foul. This story goes far beneath what looks to be a pretty surface, and I have not seen anyone with a shovel yet. It is time for those of us with an alternative seat at this circus to speak our truths.


Homestead Application Repeal Considered

A couple of weeks ago, I pointed readers to the new application that the State requires to extend the Homestead property tax credit this year. Now, faced with a public backlash regarding the application requirement, some in the General Assembly are seeking its repeal. Just to be on the safe side, if you own property in Maryland, you should probably submit the paperwork to avoid a steep tax hike.

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Water Worries

The southeast US was ground zero for diminished drinking water supplies in 2007. That was in due in large measure to a near record drought, but it was also exacerbated by unsustainable water use practices. There were numerous reports, for instance, of homeowners in Atlanta watering their lawns during the height of the dry spell.

Adding to the problem has been the explosive, unchecked growth of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Rather than acknowledge the inability of the environs to accommodate explosive growth, local officials have generally been willing to turn a blind eye to the coming disaster. One often wonders if things in Anne Arundel County are really so different.

In the southeast, having finally seen the handwriting on the wall, the Georgia legislature has finally approved a water management plan for the state. However, before the ink on the legislation was even dry, local parents and business interests starting pushing for an exemption from water restrictions for pools. Clearly, the seriousness of a drinking water shortage is lost on some people.

If we don't start managing our water resources more intelligently, and stop doing foolish things like storing our drinking water in open air reservoirs in arid climates, crystal clear pools and green golf courses are going to be the least of our worries.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Felling Oak Hill

Yesterday's Sun had an interesting piece on the expansion of the Oak Hill Juvenile Detention Center in Laurel. The facility, nominally a branch of the Washington, DC public school system exists in a precarious position, both physically and philosophically.

Its history goes back to 1929, when the federal government granted the 888 acre tract, which is located between Fort Meade and the National Security Agency (NSA), to Washington, DC. The juvenile detention facility, which houses up to 188 incarcerated middle and high school youth, was built in 1967.

The current expansion flies in the face of Senator Cardin's persistent efforts to shut the facility down, and his arguments that the center should be moved back to the District because, the location is too remote and prevents close interaction between the youths and their families.

District officials have argued that because the center houses youth whose stay is often months at a time, the rural facility gives them the opportunity to spend time outdoors. The City's other juvenile detention center, in northeast DC, has no outdoor recreation space. In the past, the City has also expressed that it would be willing to part with much of the land beyond what is immediately being used, about 40-60 acres.

With BRAC and large-scale development planned for the area, expect this issue to heat up even more over the coming years.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

It was a little over 2 years ago that it was reported that a St. Margaret's couple had filled in a 1/4 acre of Bay under the guise of reclaiming land lost by Hurricane Isabel.

Today, we get the good news from the Capital that all that fill will be coming out, thanks to a court order. In addition, the couple and their engineering firm, The Permit Coordinators, were fined $50,000 for the violations. The material removal is slated to be completed by the end of March, lest additional fines begin to mount. The aerial image below makes the infraction, and the once non-permitted lighthouse B&B (in red), pretty clear.

14234 Sharp's Point Road

Who knows, perhaps in 2 more years we'll be celebrating the removal of 40 truckloads of garbage from Judge Gatewood's property.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Judge Charged with Illegal Dumping

Doug Gansler, Maryland's Attorney General, has joined Anne Arundel County in filing charges against Baltimore City District Judge Askew Gatewood, claiming that the Judge unlawfully dumped material into a wetland, undertook construction without a sediment control plan, and caused water pollution.

The charges stem from accusations that between Oct. 1, 2006, and Jan. 20, 2007 some 40 truckloads of construction debris, including, masonry rubble, asphalt, broken bathroom fixtures, electrical wiring, chunks of concrete and fine dust, were dumped along the Judge's 470 feet of shoreline.

To be fair, the Judge hasn't been convicted yet, but I'm quite skeptical that both the County and State would be so aggressive on this if they didn't think they had a strong case. If, however, he is convicted, the saddest thing about this whole incident is that a man who owns a $1.2+ million home (shown below), located essentially right on the Bay is so cheap, and so brazen, that he would take $10,000 worth of construction trash and dump it into the Patapsco River rather than dispose of the trash properly, and pay someone to repair the shoreline responsibly.

8401 Bay Road, Pasadena, MD

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County Steps Up on Commercial Recycling

According to a Capital report, the County Executive has submitted a bill to the County Council to expand curbside recycling service to businesses in the County. Already, 70 percent of homes in the County recycle, but the cost of additional recycling service has kept most businesses from joining in.

The cost of the program has not yet been made public, but it's an idea whose time came years ago. It's good to finally see an earnest effort to get it implemented.

A public hearing will be held on the bill at the February 19th Council meeting.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Charter School Crackdown

What in the heck is going on with the Chesapeake Science Point charter school? It's been an extremely tough month for the charter school, a rare breed in Anne Arundel County. First, the principal, Fatih Kandil, was re-assigned by the school system. Then, a popular physics teacher, Ali Tuna, was re-assigned.

Now, the "school needs to hire a certified special education teacher, get a lease and site plan for a building for next year, and submit a three-year budget that will project their financial needs" in the next month or face closure.

This, despite the fact that the County school system currently has vacancies for 8 certified special education teachers.

These deficiencies are all topics that merit some concern, but that needs to be considered carefully, given the fact that the institution is only 2 1/2 years old. More important questions, to my mind, are what is the engagement of the student body, and how are the students doing?

On the first count, 150 students and parents wielding a 1,000 signature petition turned up at the recent school board meeting to support keeping the school open. Given that parental involvement is one of the best indicators of student achievement, this is a very encouraging sign. Granted, parents who put their children in a charter school are a self-selected group, but still, this level of engagement is impressive.

But how are the test scores? In 2006, Chesapeake Science Point students scored higher than the students of 15 other middle schools in the County on the Maryland School Assessment. Their 2006-2007 reading scores put them at better than all but five County middle schools [pdf] (there are 23 total). The math scores aren't as impressive, but put the school right in the middle of the pack [pdf].

The Superintendent insists he isn't out to shut down the charter school, but this is one experiment that I hope he will keep alive, as long as the parents are involved and the students are excelling.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Making Room for the Rivers

When one thinks of a nation that has been successful in holding back the encroachment of the oceans, the Netherlands, perched precariously on the edge of the North Sea inevitably come to mind. So, when the Dutch decide that after hundreds of years of trying to wall the Sea out, that sea level rise associated with global climate change is going to make them shift strategies, it makes sense for the rest of the world to take heed.

Building bigger floodgates and higher levees is no longer an option. Instead, the Dutch are "embracing the water", letting the water back onto landscape, and allowing rivers, swollen with rainfall to re-connect with their floodplains. Many of these low areas have been farmed in the past, often because they have been laden with the nutrient-rich sediments deposited by the rivers during storms. Now, however, the Dutch government is paying farmers for their properties, so the natural hydrology can be restored.

Similar efforts are quietly taking place in the US, from the Missouri River system to Napa Valley and Texas.

As has been said here before, during the current re-consideration of the General Development Plan, it is incumbent upon the County Executive and planning staff to take this issue under serious consideration, not only for Bay and river fronting properties, but for those along streams and creeks higher in the landscape that, under healthy conditions, can arrest flooding hazards downstream.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

West Street Arts District Proposed

Today's Capital discusses a proposal by the Mayor to create an arts and entertainment overlay zone along the West Street corridor, from Monticello Avenue to Chinquapin Round Road. If created, the district would exempt arts venues from local amusement and admission taxes, and would provide tax breaks to developers building affordable spaces for artists to live and work in.

The idea is certainly one worth considering, but more importantly, this is one of the early volleys in the upcoming battle for the future of West Street. The first, arguably, having been the conversion of the Johnson Lumber site to the mixed use 1901 West St complex.

Now, the area between West Gate Circle and Chinquapin Round Road is largely comprised of eyesores: dumpy retail, car dealerships, and more car dealerships. There are some residential and formerly residential commercial (e.g., law offices) units along the stretch as well.

The biggest challenge is going to be to get the Hyundai, Scion/Toyota, Acura, Honda, Dodge, and Jeep dealerships to trade their prime pavement for the opportunity to cash in on loft condos. This zoning change, perhaps, represents an opportunity to make the economics of such a move a bit more favorable for developers.

It's a shift that is going to draw the ire of some, but because of its location and proximity to infrastructure, is likely to occur in time, with or without the tax breaks.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

College Creek Then and Now

Following up on the last post, I am going to post a snippet from a 1913 Maryland Geological Survey map of Anne Arundel County. But first things first. Apparently, what we now know as College Creek was then called "Dorsey's Creek."


The road crossing the tip of the Creek is Clay Street, maintaining basically the same configuration as it does today. At that point, however, it was likely a short bridge crossing. The headwaters forked, with one branch heading south toward West Street, and the other heading west, towards what is now Admiral Heights. Former rail lines, running east-west and north-south can be seen criss-crossing the confluence.

Below is a current aerial, with the historic rail lines drawn, roughly, in white.


There is clearly a huge area of fill where the Glenwood Apartments sit, as well, interestingly, to the north, where Calvary Methodist Church and St. John's College are currently located.


The Great Glenwood Gorge

For three years, the sinkholes in front of the Glenwood Apartments, located off Clay Street in Annapolis, have been expanding. And, for three years, the Annapolis Housing Authority, who owns the property, and the City of Annapolis have dawdled on how to handle the situation.

Below are photos of the site from the Capital.

Photo by J. Henson

The City Administrator and acting director of Public Works, Bob Agee, said after his employees went out to the sinkholes last year, they couldn't devise how to stop it, or what was even causing it. Here's a hint courtesy Google Earth:

To the right is College Creek. In the center are the Glenwood Apartments, with the location of the sinkholes marked with ovals. To the left, marked roughly by the pentagon, are the headwaters of College Creek. Notice how they disappear between this point and the Creek? That's because they have almost certainly been piped under the fill that forms the foundation for the parking lot on that side of Glenwood. Chances are, the pipes have failed, the soil is washing out into College Creek, and the land is subsiding. Viola, sinkholes!

So what is this right way to fix this mess? How about "daylighting" the stream [pdf]? Pulling out the fill, peeling back the stream banks, and restoring the waterway will mean losing some parking (most of which has been lost for the past three years), and may mean placing a bridge or large culvert where Clay Street crosses it, but, it will arrest the degradation, prevent the additional siltation of College Creek, and be an amenity for the residents of Glenwood.

Let's hope the parties involved get their act together before damage to the foundation of the apartment complex does occur.

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The Mayor Strikes Back

Confronted with Alderman Dick Israel's charter amendment to strip the mayorship of some of its power over the City Administrator, the Mayor has decided to take the argument to the court of public opinion. Today's Sun has an editorial by Mayor Moyer decrying the move as "an assault on representative government."

In the piece, Moyer begins by comparing Mr. Israel to Oliver Cromwell, the 17th century British parliamentarian who helped lead a revolution against King Charles I, an advocate of the Divine Right of Kings.

She then cites a litany of projects that have been undertaken under her watch since 2002: "improvements to Edgewood Road, Forest Drive sidewalks, beginning the restoration of the Historic Maynard-Burgess House, rebuilding the Annapolis Police Department." I don't know enough about the road and sidewalk projects to say whether they've been a success, but to my knowledge, after six years, the Maynard-Burgess House still remains uncompleted and the Police Station project is mired in legal problems. The Market House "restoration" was noticeably absent from her list.

Ms. Moyer may have a point, that stripping the already weak Mayorship of its bureaucratic oversight capacity is a bad idea, but with her ongoing track record of misadministration, it's not clear she's the best situated to convincingly make that case.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Fort Meade to Burn Gas from Garbage

Discussed here almost a two years ago, the idea of Fort Meade utilizing landfill gas to fuel operations at the base appear close to being formalized.

According to the Sun, county officials have confirmed that methane gas, produced as a result of garbage decomposition at the Millersville landfill will be pumped, via a 5-mile pipeline, to Fort Meade. Currently, the gas is just burned off at the landfill, but the new arrangement will allow the County to raise revenue through the sale of the gas to the base.

This is a great use of the tens of thousands of cubic feet of methane generated by the garbage on a daily basis, and represents, at least in the near term, a renewable source of fuel based right here in the County.

I would urge the County Executive, the Council, and those at the Department of Public Works to consider the potential capture and sell methane gas being produced at the other County landfill facilities in Glen Burnie and Sudley as well.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Homestead Head's Up

The Homestead Tax Credit was put in place to limit the amount of assessment increase that homeowners can expect on their property tax bill. Any homeowner, regardless of income level, is eligible to take the credit on their primary residence.

However, in an effort to avoid individuals taking the credit on multiple properties, the legislature passed a law requiring that a one-time application be made in order to receive the credit into the future. The application, at the State Department of Taxation and Assessments website, can be found here.

According to the site, "This credit can have a significant impact on your real estate taxes regardless of your property’s value or your income level. If the property is used as your principal residence, you are strongly encouraged to complete this application."


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Council Flinches on Impact

Yesterday, the County Council had their work session on the County Executive's impact fee proposal. The bold plan, predictably, drew quite a bit of heat from the Council, for reasons ranging from the disingenuous (see Ed Middlebrooks feigning concern about "affordable housing"), to bad-faith misdirection (see Cathy Vitale: "The numbers that were produced were not based on one specific methodology"), to being insulted that the Executive gave the Council the legislation rather than vice versa (see Jamie Benoit's request to have the Council hire its own consultant).

From the start, there was never a question that a significant hike in impact fees was going to be an uphill battle, despite the fact that several members of the sitting Council blamed the Owens' administration for a failure to appropriately hike the fees.

Now, I certainly won't begrudge the Council its due diligence, but to question the consultant, James Nicholas' credentials or his "methodology" strikes me as a bit desperate. After all, Nicholas literally wrote the book ("A Practitioner’s Guide to Development Impact Fees" (1991)) on impact fees, is an urban & regional planning professor at the University of Florida, and has been a consultant on the issue to at least 5 states, 28 counties, 22 cities, and the US government. His resume can be found here [pdf].

If the Council can find a more qualified consultant, I would certainly welcome his or her assessment of the County's situation. If, however, the Council is just chafed to learn that every time a new home goes in, the taxpayers of Anne Arundel County get rogered in the pocketbook, they should do the right thing and make new development pay its own way.

This is, arguably, the most important issue that will come before this Council. Thousands of new homes are slated to come to the County as a result of BRAC, and if we don't have serious impact fees in place when they do, taxpayers will be subsidizing each new home to the tune of something like $20,000 apiece. That's the way business has been done in the past, and it's why, despite adding 60,000 people from 1990 to 2000, our tax burden continues to increase.

UPDATE: Sun coverage.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Advisory Commission Recommends End to Oystering the Commons

According to a piece by the Post, the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission, set up by the State of Maryland is prepared to release a report dramatically changing the nature of oyster harvesting in the Bay.

The report recommends that, in order to help the oyster population bounce back from its historic collapse, free-ranging harvest of public oyster beds be scaled back, and instead move the industry towards private, "shellfish farms."

Despite the fact that $40 million has been spent on oyster restoration, the population remains at about 1 percent of its historic levels. The negligible impact of these dollars is at least in part due to the fact that much of that money has been spent on a watermen welfare system, where the State and conservation groups pay to grow and set spat, only to be harvested a few years later - so called "put and take" programs.

Given the miserable condition of the population and the exceedingly small group of people left profiting from its demise, I think the report's recommendations are right on the money. We'll see, in short order, if the Governor and General Assembly have the courage to stand behind them.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

A Brief History of the Ratrie Property

A review of the Fourth Circuit decision in Crofton Ventures v. G & H Partnership (2001) has an extensive description of the property that adjoins the County trail segment through Odenton.

Initially, the property was intended to be 32 acres peeled off from an existing 55-acre tract of land owned by Harry and Dahlia Ratrie, and was going to be used as a location to store totaled cars and sell their parts.1 The property was sold in 1991 with the previous owners affirming that, to the best of their knowledge, no hazardous waste had been stored on the property.

In 1995, when Crofton Ventures began to develop the property, they quickly found a waste dump that contained 285 fully or partially buried 55-gallon drums of various offensive substances, most notably Trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent and known carcinogen. Sampling confirmed "high levels" of TCE in the soil and groundwater at the site.

Turns out, the location had previously been an asphalt plant, and that the drums, which contained a mixture of asphalt and TCE (a solvent to test asphalt) were almost certainly stored on the property as part of the operation. Though Mr. Ratrie was owner of the property during at least part of the time when TCE was dumped, he denied knowledge of the dumping in court. Conveniently, no record of the drums' disposal turned up.

Upon discovering the drums, Crofton Ventures "cleaned up the site."

The question that remains in my mind is, what, if any, pollutants remain on the site, and how many more of these silent time bombs lay buried in our abandoned mine sites?

1 This activity will be the subject of a future post.


Maxwell Offers Home for Artwork

It's no secret that John Leopold and Kevin Maxwell don't play well together. So, it wasn't surprising when Superintendent Maxwell grabbed the opportunity to embarrass the County Exec in the latest drama surrounding the display of children's art work on the Calvert Center.

Maxwell has extended an offer to the good folks at ArtWalk to hang the paintings at a school facility. While it's unfortunate that Leopold and Maxwell continue to wage their battle against each other, I can hardly think of more deserving beneficiaries of their squabble than the kids of Clay Street.

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BREAKING NEWS: Odenton Dump Just the Tip of the Trashberg

Several new facts have come to light since Sunday's story on the plastic dump just "recently discovered" along the right-of-way for the WB&A Trail connecting the Anne Arundel County system to the trailhead in Prince George's County.

First, contrary to the claims of officials quoted in the Capital article, that the dump was only recently discovered, it has been confirmed that the existence of the site has been known for quite some time, and that steps were not taken to address it sooner.

In addition, the manner in which the current clean-up was handled, apparently without the involvement of the proper regulatory authorities, such as MDE, may prevent the County from being able to file a criminal complaint against the prior owners of the property, Piney Orchard Master Partnership, a subsidiary of Constellation Energy Group.

To make matters worse, there is now word that an adjacent property, a former sand and gravel mine, is currently home to an unknown quantity of 55-gallon drums of fluid, currently leaching into the Little Patuxent River. The property is the site of the now infamous Crofton Ventures Limited Partnership v. G & H Partnership case [pdf].

More to come....

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

WB&A Trail Extension Opening Delayed

Ask anyone who lives in Anne Arundel County, particularly anyone who lives along the Route 2 corridor, what they think of the WB&A Trail, and chances are, they think it's a tremendous community resource. Sure, there were initially reservations about whether or not it would bring "unsavory" elements into the neighborhoods that abut the trail, but those concerns were largely unfounded.

An extension from Odenton to Bowie, which will connect the Anne Arundel and Prince George's County trails, is now nearly complete. The opening of the final segment, which includes a footbridge over the Little Patuxent River, is now being held up, in part, because of an enormous dump site of plastic waste adjacent to the trail. The County has already spent $47,000 removing 230 tons of plastic from the site, but several hundred more tons still remain. At least some of the plastic trash bears the logo of Nevamar, a plastic manufacturer that was based in Odenton from 1943 to 2004.

Let's hope the County pursues compensation for these remediation efforts if a culprit can be pinpointed. And, kudos to the County for pursuing this expansion of our well-traveled trail network.

Below is a map of the Anne Arundel County portion of trail's current configuration.


UPDATE: Sun coverage.

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Alderman Proposes Empowering City Administrator

Ward One Alderman, Dick Israel (D), has proposed a charter amendment to significantly broaden the the powers of Annapolis' City Administrator. Among the proposed changes are: allowing the Administrator the power to take charge of hiring and firing decisions in the City bureaucracy and the ability to set the compensation levels for director-level staff.

It appears, however, that the Mayor isn't too keen on the plan, contending that it will create "an adversarial government," pitting the Mayor against the Administrator. Her consternation is somewhat understandable given that Alderman Israel's motivation is "an election does not guarantee that a mayor will have the managerial skills needed to effectively supervise the delivery of routine municipal services." Ouch.

In a certain way, it may have a freeing effect on a Mayor, like this one, who refuses to make tough hiring and firing decisions in the face of repeated administrative incompetence. Once enacted those responsibilities would clearly be the purview of the Administrator. The irony here is that if this bill passes, and the Mayor is stripped of authority, it will be precisely because the sitting Mayor failed to exercise the authority she does have and put an end to the string of embarrassing project mismanagement that has dogged her Administration.

The amendment will likely be introduced at tomorrow's Council meeting.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Maryland Schools Ranked Among Highest

A report just released by Education Week ranks Maryland's public schools among the top in the nation. The report, Quality Counts, ranks Maryland third best in the nation, behind only New York and Massachusetts. Each of the States and DC were ranked according to 17 indicators in six broad categories. Among Maryland's strengths, early childhood education, adult outcomes, spending, and standards. Areas for improvement include college readiness, and accountability for quality, and building and supporting capacity in the teaching profession.

Congratulations to the teachers and students in Maryland Schools, and something for each of us to think about next time we wonder where our tax dollars are going.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Compromise Forged on Subdivision Bill

At Monday's County Council meeting, Councilman Reilly's bill to exempt so called "minor subdivisions" from school adequacy of public school provisions ran up against considerable opposition, and faced substantive amendments by Councilman Cohen.

The bill, ostensibly designed to address cases where local landowners are being held up in the process of subdividing their land so their children or other family members can build homes, was opposed by several groups, including South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development (SACReD), on the grounds that it was too open-ended. Or, as Mike Shay said, "The bill was never really crafted to serve the people they were intending to serve."

Councilman Cohen's amendments narrowed the number of new units that can be created from five to three and require the land owner to possess the property for five years before subdividing. Curiously, Councilman Reilly opposed both.

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Lifeguard Removal Bill Beaten Back

On Monday, the County Council defeated one of the more bizarre pieces of legislation in recent memory. Councilman Reilly sponsored a bill, apparently at the behest of a local hotel owner, to remove the requirement that hotels with pools of a depth of 5 feet or less have a lifeguard. The smarmy rationale of the hotel owner, Steve Merchant was that, "having no lifeguards may have parents better monitoring their children." Yes, let's adopt a laissez faire attitude to the protection of tykes in water wings and see which ones make it to adulthood.

Mr. Reilly, dumbfounded that the bill got only his vote, offered, "my peers were concerned about protection in spite of the economic cost." Imagine that, the County Council, whose charge certainly includes public safety, is more concerned about children drowning in the local Motel 8 than they are about the hotel having to pay a high school student minimum wage to monitor the pool. Have they no sense of priorities?

Even more confounding, however, was Health Officer Fran Phillips' support of the bill. Her defense? “We don’t see a detriment to public health, as we will still monitor the pool’s operation.” Yes, because checking the pool weekly for high bacteria levels is in any way, shape, or form related to the capacity of children to drown in the absence of supervision. She also said, "most of the county’s six drownings last year were outside of pools." Perhaps that's because the pools had lifeguards and the law is working.

This is now at least the third time in the past year that the County's Health Department has underwhelmed me. The first two being their blame deflection game regarding the fly ash situation in Gambrills, and their persistent defensiveness in the face of the inadequacy of their waterway bacteria monitoring program.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Turning Table Scraps Into Topsoil

Last month, I discussed a report that Anne Arundel County was seeking ways to reduce its waste stream. I mentioned the opportunities for recycling and composting, but it wasn't until just today that I realized Anne Arundel County has a large-scale, commercial composting operation right in Crofton.

Chesterfield Farms, at 1230 Cronson Boulevard, accepts all organic material, manure, and food waste (but, no tree stumps), for conversion into high quality compost. They sell the finished material from their Crofton site, along with green roof soil blends and double-shredded bark mulch.

This presents a huge opportunity for the County to reduce its refuse load, as organic materials make up 2/3's of the waste stream in the US. The County already runs an aggressive backyard composting program, but it would be interesting to see it undertake a curbside composting pilot program as well, perhaps in a portion of the County where backyard composting is impractical.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Let's Get Ready for the 2008 Session

Today's Capital has profiles and contact information for the entire Anne Arundel County Legislative Delegation.

Anne Arundel County's Delegates and Senators are a strange mix. We are represented by the Speaker of the House, one of the most powerful individuals in the Assembly, but also by the "least effective Senator", and the "fourth least effective Delegate".

We're also home to at least one Delegate who can't seem to get himself out from under clouds of suspicion about various illegal activities.

Newcomers, James King (R) and Steve Schuh (R) bring a set of fresh faces, and some interesting new ideas to the Assembly. Let's hope they can all work together to make Maryland a happier, healthier place to live.


Sunday, January 06, 2008

More Market House Madness

Just when you didn't think things could get any worse with the Market House situation in Annapolis, the management company operating the facility sues the City for $2 million. Site Realty Group, which won the lease for the prime property on Annapolis' harbor a couple of years ago, is suing the City for $2 million, alleging that the bungled air conditioning situation has cost them lost rent. They are also asserting that the City didn't allow them to rent sidewalk space to vendors.

With regard to the insufficient air conditioning, the City's defense appears to be that they had negotiated a situation with Site Realty whereby the unit would be fixed in January 2008, after the heavy shopping season. In the case of the absent sidewalk stalls, the Mayor claims never to have been made aware of such provisions. To be fair, I had never heard discussions of sidewalk rentals mentioned before either. Of course, I've never read the contract.

My understanding is that the situation is so bad now, that the Market House will be closed during weekdays through the winter. How the City can continue to screw up this situation, which really should have been a boon to downtown, is beyond me. It's almost as vexing as how the Mayor can allow those who got the City into this mess to stay in its employ.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Leopold Proposes Bold Hike in Impact Fees

According to today's Capital, last night the County Executive unveiled a sweeping proposal to raise impact fees on new development to make it cover its full cost, as recommended by a consultant to the County. The impact fees would be raised for both residential and commercial projects, with residential development having to pay for increased school, road, and public safety infrastructure costs, and commercial having to pay for roads and public safety.

In practical terms, that means the impact fee for an average home will increase from about $4,500 to $20,500. The fees on commercial development will be significantly more, likely weighted towards meeting traffic needs. The money collected through these fees is used to provide additional infrastructure to accommodate growth.

Predictably, the Homebuilders' lobbyist, and vice president of Ribera Development, Eric DeVito cried wolf, saying, "the new fees are so high that it may shut down building in Anne Arundel." We should all be so lucky to see such a day.

Once introduced, the future of the bill is in the hands of the County Council. Let's hope they don't gut this important piece of legislation in favor of pandering to the development community. It's about time that new development started to pay its own way, rather than relying on subsidies from the public-at-large.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Our Own Sweet Lord Deemed Dumbest on Wall Street

Own very own Albert Lord, he of the personal golf course in South County fame, was awarded "Dumbest on Wall Street for 2007" by business website Why, you might ask?

Mr. Lord, the CEO of Sallie Mae, the nation's leading provider of student loans, first, apparently bungled a buy-out deal, leading the company's stock price to implode.

Then, Mr. Lord, faced with a margin call, had to sell 1.2 million shares of stock (~$25 million worth). As a result of Mr. Lord's actions, the company now finds itself in a position where it may have to spend over $1 billion to purchase more shares in order to consummate the original leveraged buyout.

In a final flourish, "a recent conference call with analysts turned into a piece of performance art in obfuscation and offensive asides. Oh, and don't forget the cursing and threats. He told analysts that they would be put through a metal detector at an upcoming meeting."

Someone who captured the recent Sallie Mae conference call did us the service of putting it up on YouTube. Mr. Lord, apparently, was in a quite a rush to exit stage right. Listen below. [WARNING: Not child friendly]

The full transcript can be found here. [WARNING: Also not child friendly].

Here's hoping Mr. Lord's environmental mess of a golf course is put on hold, indefinitely, due to "financial miscalculations."

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Pork as "Protection"

Chalk up another local pork barrel project masquerading under the guise of "security spending." First, it was the tank that would protect Annapolis from the famed Al Quaeda Panzer Division. That was $1.4 million down the drain. Now, the County is applying for a $670,000 federal "grant" to buy a special boat that will allegedly "patrol Anne Arundel County waterways" attempting to "detect biological or chemical attacks and respond to nuclear explosions." According to Cathy Vitale, whose husband is a firefighter, "the boat will benefit the County." Sure it will. Sounds like a delightful place to have fundraisers.

Now first things first. County taxpayers foot the bill for federal "grants" just as surely as they do for the money the County spends, it's just that it gets to go to Washington first, and get mingled with the dollars from taxpayers in the other 50 states. If one considers this a waste of our tax money, we certainly shouldn't be burning the dollars of Montanans and Californians on it either. And, it is a waste.

The County already has a fire boat, the Lady Anne, that "patrols during major events like fireworks, sailboat races and the Bay Bridge swim." That would seem to mean that the other 362 days a year, it's free to putter up the Magothy, Severn, and South, looking for ill-intentioned ne'er do wells. Is it? If so, I've never seen it happen.

The ridiculousness of this whole episode is compounded by the fact that the County Department of Inspections and Permits is still relying on citizens, rather than its own inspectors, to catch violations along the waterfront, because it lacks the will or the money to purchase an inspection craft to patrol the most environmentally sensitive areas in the County, its 480 miles of shoreline.

So, while we're off asking for federal handouts for fire boats to sniff the trail of unlikely boogey men, we continue to allow the very real destruction of our County's natural resources on a daily basis for want of the ability to provide real monitoring.

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Oystered Out

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, the current population of oysters in the Bay is around 1 percent of where it was when Europeans explored the area in the early 1600s. How did we get from a situation where there were so many oysters in the Chesapeake that they could filter the Bay once every three or four days, to the situation where they can filter it perhaps once or twice a year?

It's a story, like so many others of this sort, of greed, mismanagement, and in the end, a lack of will. Unfortunately, these traits persist in the Bay region to this day. A great little primer I've come across is The Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay by John Wennersten, published in 1981. Several interesting details from the book follow.

In 1884, 15,000,000 bushels of oysters were taken from the Bay, which represented the height of the fishery. (As recently as 2005, it was down to 32,000 bushels).

Did you realize that the aquatic boundary between Maryland and Virginia, east of the Potomac River was largely the product of oyster bar harvesting disputes that had to be settled by the US Supreme Court? And, that watermen on both sides of the border were killed in skirmishes over harvesting rights?

When do you think first State-funded survey of the oyster population in the state took place? 1980? 1950? It was actually 1876, and the Naval Lieutenant who headed up the mission, Francis Winslow, warned then that oysters were being taken from the Bay at a rate far greater than natural reproduction could offset.

We are told that the downfall of the Chesapeake's oysters was disease, Dermo and MSX, but the truth is, disease has been able to sound the death knell for a population that was already ravaged to within an inch of its life by human greed. And yet, after 130 years, we have learned very little. We continue to allow menhaden, crabs, and other aquatic organisms to be taken from the Bay at an unsustainable rate. Will 2008 be the year we finally learn from our mistakes?

The chart below is great source of oyster milestones on the Chesapeake from NOAA [Click to enlarge].

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Tragedies vs. Statistics

"The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." Joseph Stalin

A Monday Sun article beautifully re-affirms Stalin's maxim. We are presented with a portrait of "suburban" violence as being deliberate and rational, whereas urban murders are "drug-fueled" and "impersonal."

The sentiment in the article seems to be that, in the 'burbs, you're likely to be killed by people you know, whereas in the City, you could be killed at any time, as part of random violence. Of course, as described in the article, the "highest profile homicide" in Baltimore County was carried out by hooligans from the City who were executing a police informant in Rosedale. Are we to believe that this sort of tit-for-tat is unknown when conducted solely within the City limits?

I suspect the article was cobbled together as a well-intentioned end of the year crime wrap-up, but the truth of the matter is that it's precisely the sort of piece that continues to lull enclaved suburbanites into the delusion that if they can just stay on good terms with their spouses and business partners, and avoid the hellish heart of darkness on the inner harbor, they can safely ignore the hundreds of victims sacrificed on the streets of Baltimore each year.

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Upcoming Hearing on Impact Fees

The Planning Advisory Board will meet on Thursday, January 3, 2008, at 6:00 p.m. in the Chesapeake Room, Second Floor, Heritage Office Complex, 2664 Riva Road, Annapolis, MD.

The Board’s agenda is:

6:00 - Call to Order; Public Hearing on Legislation regarding Impact Fees

Speakers that have signed up will be invited to speak. Public Officials, Documented representative of civic, neighborhood, business or professional associations will be given five (5) minutes to speak; Individuals will be given three (3) minutes to speak

Written testimony will be accepted until January 10, 2008. Please mail to:

Office of Planning and Zoning
PAB, Attention: Sharon Faulkner
2664 Riva Road, MS 6403
Annapolis, MD 21401

Requests for more information can be addressed to Sharon Faulkner, Office of Planning and Zoning, at (410) 222-7432. Assistance for persons with disabilities will be provided upon request at least one week prior to the meeting. Call Sharon Faulkner, Office of Planning and Zoning, at (410) 222-7432 or the Americans with Disabilities Act Office TDD/TTY at 410-222-4355.

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