This election will be critical to our efforts to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay and our waterways. The reason is the decisions the new county executive and council will make in adopting a new General Development Plan to guide growth for the next 20 years.
Our current county executive aggressively promoted development by being more amenable to project variances, modifications, and waivers to public meeting requirements. The Capital called the process “maddeningly opaque.”
At the same time, Schuh constantly highlights his “record investment” in watershed restoration projects. While these are important, they can’t keep up with the added runoff from new developments and land clearing projects.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2017 Bay report gave grades of “F” and “D,” respectively, for current efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, the two most potent pollutants impacting Bay waters. And the county reports that it has only achieved 8 percent and 18 percent, respectively, of its 2025 targets for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.
The next county executive and council can get us on a path to protecting and restoring the bay by adopting a bay-friendly GDP.
First, they need to make clear that restoring the bay and our rivers is a priority. Any future growth and development options considered in the GDP should be evaluated to determine the extent to which they would reduce polluted runoff and contribute to improving bay health. Expertise exists in Maryland and elsewhere to do this kind of analysis. This information should be publicly available and become critical input into the county executive and council’s land use decisions.
Second, our newly elected county leadership must commit to better enforce current stormwater rules and stop developing in places that we know are likely to impact our waterways.
A July 2018 study by 25 of the county’s conservation and waterkeeper organizations found that the county’s compliance with stormwater rules “remains far below that needed to protect our rivers and other County waters” and noted “this and related compliance issues are a significant factor in the latest Bay Health Index showing that Anne Arundel rivers are among the most polluted.”
The county should invest in the personnel and technology to improve monitoring and enforcement of development projects and violators should be required to fully mitigate any pollution they cause.
While restoration and enforcement are important, the new GDP should also determine where not to develop to improve bay water quality including forest lands, wetlands, important wildlife habitats, and the critical area. Currently, Anne Arundel County has the second highest rate of forestland loss in the state. Databases and mapping information already exist to identify lands that are critical to Bay health.
County leadership should commit to stop developing these places and, instead, encourage their protection through conservation easements and other means. That doesn’t mean no-growth, but growth that is compatible with our bay improvement goals.
Third, the county should partner with communities to help develop and implement pollution prevention, mitigation, and land conservation strategies to improve the effectiveness of water quality restoration efforts. The small area plans are the perfect place to frame such a strategy, but they have to be developed with full community input at the front end of the process, not after the council has signed off on the GDP and the zoning that will implement it.
Other communities across Maryland have adopted community-based efforts to address stormwater runoff and the new county leadership should learn from their ideas and experiences. That approach will build community ownership of efforts to save our Bay and create a Bay-friendly growth strategy from the ground up.
Anne Arundel County has more bay shoreline than any other jurisdiction and our history is based on our connections to our waterways.
County officials, in collaboration with community associations, riverkeepers, businesses, non-profits, and concerned citizens should be leading efforts to save our bay while demonstrating how to grow communities in an environmentally- sound and sustainable way.
Let’s elect the leadership that will finally make that happen.
Jim Lyons is a lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He lives on the Mayo Peninsula.