By: David Prosten
It has been a year since family ties lured me to retirement in Falmouth, Massachusetts. But my two decades of environmental activism “back home” in Annapolis aren’t easily forgotten, or abandoned. So, I’ve been following the issues I care about and I’m dismayed at what I’m reading in The Capital.
During much of my time in Annapolis I was chairman of the 1,200-member Anne Arundel Sierra Club and became deeply involved in one of the biggest environmental challenges the area has faced for many years: a Connecticut developer’s plan to bulldoze half of the forest on Forest Drive’s 111-acre Crystal Spring tract and construct a shopping center/hotel/townhouse/retirement complex.
Our objections were environmental: loss of trees and wildlife habitat, stormwater runoff to Crab Creek and the South River and the like. Traffic, school overcrowding concerns and other issues soon became part of the discussion.
By the time I left Annapolis an active coalition of individuals and groups, literally thousands of people, had formed. They viewed the Crystal Spring development as a major environmental and quality-of-life threat. Reports in The Capital over the past few weeks have made me worry that the developer’s political influence and deep pockets are overwhelming the will of the people.
My concerns are based on recent actions by the City Council that, while professing to protect the community, actually ease the developer’s path. The new Forest Conservation Act contains provisions and “definitions” that cleverly open the door to destruction of priority forest, while the Adequate Public Facilities ordinance allows building more homes than there are schoolrooms to hold the children from those homes.
With both ordinances it appears that the mayor and council members — with city elections looming next year — are more eager to show they had responded to years of growing community frustration than they are to enact meaningful measures that would actually respond to the concerns raised.
•The Forest Conservation Act opens the door for developers to obtain approvals of forest destruction, while forbidding appeals of those decisions, as we had before the passage, either within the city structure or via the Circuit Court. Amazingly, such approvals and other variances under the city’s Planning and Zoning Department can be appealed. Where’s the logic in that?
•The law was supposed to have a “no net loss” provision: For every tree developers cut down they must plant another. Instead, we find that this provision is eliminated and the developer can simply pay a fee. Do you have any reason to think that won’t be an easy out to advance this $200 million-plus project?
•The mayor and council claim to have actually improved on the state law that sets minimum standards for forest conservation, both by protecting trees smaller than the state requires and creating larger stream buffers than outlined by the state. Wrong on both counts. The city’s planning and zoning director would have to come up with special findings to justify each of these standards, tree by tree and buffer by buffer.
•As for the Adequate Public Facilities legislation, the purpose of which is to be sure there’s enough infrastructure in place to serve the growing population, what part of “adequate” doesn’t the council get? Its law declares 105 percent capacity at elementary and middle schools, and 120 percent at high schools, is OK. This decision, you won’t be shocked to hear, provides exactly the cover needed for construction at Crystal Spring and other developments in the works.
Some of my friends in the environmental community apparently see the forest conservation and adequate public facilities measures as victorious half-loaves — i.e., better than nothing. I’m afraid, though, that these measures are a city cop-out, a tacit go-ahead for all the development that ails the city. I can only hope the wonderful coalition of activists can keep their eyes on the prize and turn back these terribly flawed measures.
David Prosten lived in Annapolis from 1994 to 2015 and was active in the city’s environmental and political life. He was a frequent op-ed contributor.