Capital Op-Ed: “Will officials protect Priority Forest?”

Capital Gazette: September 20, 2016

By: Kurt Riegel

Civic tensions are perpetual between two positives: preservation of nature for the enjoyment of our citizens, and quality housing for the benefit our residents. Government has an essential and unique duty to represent a broad spectrum of interests to serve us best.

But can we have such a government and also fund the campaigns of those seeking to serve as its elected officials? Annapolis suffers an electoral dilemma that afflicts the nation. Does campaign funding stand in the way of good governance?

A reality is that the re-election campaigns of some Annapolis officials have been, and likely will continue to be, funded primarily from contributions by developers, their attorneys and their financial institutions. Campaigns nowadays are becoming ever more costly and elections seem to be ever closer. In our polarized era even a few marginal votes, purchased in a sense, risk throwing government decisions out of balance.

Citizens of Annapolis, and the advisory commissions and civic organizations that try to help their government to protect our environment, lack such financial leverage. Their representatives in city government sometimes do not give them the respect and attention they deserve when it comes to sound policies for environmental protection and preservation of our last bits of forest.

At every decision step, with options ranging from perfectly protective to let-developers-do-whatever, a regrettable tendency is to bend toward those with money, clout, a record of funding re-election campaigns — or those who threaten litigation. We are seeing this played out in the cases of Crystal Spring and Parkside Preserve.

Everybody loves Anne Arundel County’s Quiet Waters Park. It’s a marvelous place, a vibrant living museum of nature with mature contiguous forest. It is enjoyed by thousands, and it helps to keep the watersheds of South River and Harness Creek clean.

Immediately adjacent to the park is private land with more mature forest. Many have assumed that all the forested land near the park entrance must be a part of Quiet Waters Park. It isn’t.

Developers have slated this land, including 12 acres of contiguous “Priority Forest” (designated as such under the Forest Conservation Act) for more than 150 new houses and townhouses now called Parkside Preserve.

Some units would be built on already-cleared open land. But other units are intended for land that would have to be stripped of its Priority Forest, for more profit, a very damaging option. True to a cynical real estate tradition, the development would be named for the treasure that it will destroy.

“Preserve” it will not be.

By law, Priority Forest is supposed to be retained. But here’s the rub: How diligently and how responsibly that protection is actually delivered depend greatly on the level of commitment by elected city officials, appointed officials and other administrators.

We have a test of that commitment in the case of Parkside Preserve.

The Annapolis Environmental Commission, civic organizations and knowledgeable individuals have strongly advised the city to exercise its authority to require Parkside Preserve to confine the development footprint to areas outside the Priority Forest and retain the contiguous forest and wetlands adjacent to Quiet Waters Park.

The mayor, appointed officials and city administrators have great latitude to turn the dial toward preservation for the citizens of Annapolis. Once lost, Priority Forest is lost forever.

Courage, intelligence, and wisdom are required. Can it be found? Will they protect Priority Forest for our citizens, to the maximum degree allowed by law? I am among the many who urge those city officials to go out on a limb for us, and help us to keep our last shreds of city forest intact.

Kurt Riegel was a senior executive at the Department of the Navy and Environmental Protection Agency, teaches Environmental Compliance Management at Johns Hopkins University and has served on the Severn River Commission, the Annapolis Environmental Commission and the Severn River Association.

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