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#WeFloodToo

#WeFloodToo

The title #WeFloodToo first came to mind as I sat in the County Council meeting at which the one year building moratorium for Ellicott City was being discussed. (The #MeToo movement was still having a positive impact.) I felt it was significant that people from communities outside of Ellicott City where also commenting on the flooding in their own neighborhoods. The Valley Mede neighborhood was particularly hard hit. Again. I commented that anything learned about over-development’s effects in the Tiber watershed should also be applied to the rest of the County, because in fact, flooding is NOT a feature exclusive to Old Ellicott City.

Friday was the start of another long holiday weekend, not unlike the 2018 Memorial Day weekend. Here in the southeastern part of the county it was ushered in by torrential rain, accumulating several inches in under an hour, causing flooding throughout numerous communities. It wasn’t until I got a message from my daughter with photos of flooding at Guilford Road and Mary Lane that I realized the seriousness. Soon after I started seeing more photos and postings on Facebook about flooding occurring on roads, in yards, and in basements. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to think, “Here we go again” and “I hope Ellicott City isn’t getting THIS.”

It’s hard not to think of Old Ellicott City ANYTIME it rains. But it is also appropriate to think of one’s own home and community, of friends living in low lying areas, of parcels recently stripped of trees and vegetation…….and of the many signs announcing pre-submission hearings for additional development.

When I saw pictures of the flooding at Guilford Road and Mission Road—‘the worst yet’ as described by a resident—I was particularly upset. https://www.facebook.com/jeff.walters.359/videos/10212687945889636/?t=13

I progressed to anger hearing there was also flooding at Mission and Route 1 and by the railroad bridge over Mission, just past where acres and acres of forest have been cleared for housing that will flank our proposed High School #13.  The gentleman posting the video said “It appears that the sediment pond they built has overflown and partially collapsed and is spilling onto Mission Rd. Heavy silt in the water.” This will ultimately finds its way to the Little Patuxent River.

I certainly hope the County plans to correct these issues BEFORE school children are unable to either get to or return home from school safely.  If this isn’t the poster child for a need to correct our development regulations and to take controlling storm water seriously, I don’t know what is!

But wait there’s more.  Not far away is the construction site for a storage building along the Little Patuxent. Local citizens strongly opposed the permitting without any public notice of a facility whose entrance interrupts a portion of the Patuxent Branch trail, used for decades by area residents. For brevity here I will direct you to https://www.facebook.com/groups/FriendsGuilfordHistory/ , but will share  photos taken by Wayne Davis which illustrate HoCo’s cavalier attitude toward commercial development adjacent to a flood plain and a branch of the Little Patuxent River.

Heavily silted stormwater flows from the construction site on to the roadway trail. It crosses and flows into the river which is just to the right of the cones and the vegetation.

 

 

 

 

Clearly no other area of HoCo has faced the repeated level of death and destruction as has OEC (to my knowledge).  This makes one hesitant to say anything about the need for attention to storm water generated by overdevelopment elsewhere.  However we must admit the damaging effects of storm water resulting from HoCo’s addiction to dense development if we are to improve the situation. There is no easy Narcan fix, no antidote to the desire for more and more tax income. HoCo officials seek doses of greater and greater density, even knowing that it depletes our public facilities and emaciates our quality of life. The acceptance of ‘campaign contributions’ from developers feeds the addiction. Admitting the problem and making behavioral change is essential for what will doubtless be a long and difficult recovery. But we MUST begin now.

Fortunately the Patuxent, Middle Pax, and Little Pax don’t flood destructively frequently within the borders of Howard County. There have however been deaths at locations one doesn’t necessarily think of as ‘the river,’ such as South Entrance Road and Rt. 29.  Residents of Savage remember vividly when Hurricane Agnes resulted in the destruction of the Foundry Street Bridge and when water has engulfed US1.

 

 

Those of us in Savage worry during each heavy rain about a resident whose home sits along the river. On the May weekend when OEC was destroyed, thankfully only her driveway was destroyed. I don’t know how I would have reacted to finding FISH on MY driveway! I was happy to share these photos with the Council.

Historically, Howard County, like much of Maryland, has made two very large mistakes regarding the management of storm water. First, throughout the era of the construction of Columbia, the approach was to get storm water away from developed properties and off to rivers as quickly as possible. (This speed has resulted in the erosion of streambanks necessitating costly remediation.)  Next, the ‘NEW’ storm water regulations demanded water be kept on a newly developed property, to be cleaned before it flowed elsewhere.  If the retention, bio retention, or micro-bio retention facilities function correctly, it is cleaned water that will still flow down steep slopes, picking up sediment and debris on its way through the watershed. Channels continue to fill in without dredging and attention. Culverts become blocked without attention. The substitution of impervious roofs, roads, sidewalks, etc. for open spaces of pervious fields and forests, places us literally on the path to destruction. We must wake up to the reality that we cannot be lenient in our approval of SW Management plans.

Flooding is one issue, but the health of our rivers is equally important. The Patuxent (Pax) River watershed occupies over 2/3 of this County, yet it is generally the Patapsco which gets the most attention. For several decades the Pax, which originates here in HoCo has had a D- rating.  In 1980 the Counties to the south of us along the Pax insisted the state protect them from the pollution which Howard County created and sent downstream. (How embarrassing!) The State legislature authorized the creation of a Patuxent River Commission to protect the health of the river. Currently, the political power of developers in HoCo is threatening the Patuxent River Commission (PRC) itself, pressuring to eliminate the Commission’s ability to comment on private development regarded as deleterious to the watershed. (How embarrassing!)

You can read more on the situation at http://paxriverkeeper.org/the-only-state-river-commission-in-maryland-just-blinked/  Please consider signing the petition at http://paxriverkeeper.org/petition/ to show you care about the health of the Pax River and the future of the PRC—as well as its commission members who attempted to advise the HoCo Planning Board and Council on a most egregious case.

Insist that everyone throughout the County should be safe from uncontrolled storm water caused by uncontrolled development. Look carefully at which candidates are likely to put developers’ interests above the safety of residents—and meet me on the high road,

Susan

 

Who Let the Dog’s Out?

Who Let the Dog’s Out?

Writing about the Council’s special session from last week may help me work through the emotions it evoked. By the time this blog concludes you should have a better understanding of why it seems heavily “dog-oriented’ and I should be able to, if not ‘let it go’, at least learn from it.

[Many readers may reflexively connect Who Let the Dogs Out? to the 2000 hit recording by Baha Men popularized locally by Ravens football. But the expression actually has multiple origins and I will suggest inquiring minds check Google for more in depth info.]

There is a long history of the Council having a very full agenda of critical bills during the ‘Dog Days of Summer’, prior to their August recess. I’ve come to think of it as the time for Summer Political Theatre. While citizen participation is always high, there is nevertheless a significant portion of citizens away on vacation who miss their opportunity to provide testimony.  Activists are quite aware that some Council members act as if what citizens are saying is spoken in frequencies outside normal human hearing capability. (Perhaps they are pretending that citizens are testifying in a frequency only dogs can hear.)

Ultimately, despite additional July legislative hearings and work sessions business always seems frightfully rushed. This year was certainly no exception and it was further complicated by the Administration moving up the schedule on the Courthouse financing bill, CB54. Some have questioned the coincidence of this occurring precisely when an activist began multiple public information requests because of concerns about the validity of need, location selection, companies benefiting and bidding procedures.

The answer to Who Let the Dogs Out? depends on whether one is considering a literal or a figurative connotation. The literal involves actually freeing dogs from a room, house, or enclosure and the figurative relates more to looking like or acting like a dog in a derogatory sense, suggesting one acts no better than dogs. I intend NO insult to dogs in my comments. I too am a HUGE dog lover, especially of rescued dogs whose loyalty to, protection of, and caring for their human family is unparalleled.

Starting with a literal example……Rambunctious dogs are often put in a spare room or separate fenced area when company comes. If someone lets them loose, it would be asked directly who had (inadvertently/ accidentally or thoughtlessly/ inconsiderately) let the dogs out. A lack of attention to detail (like failing to close a door or gate completely) or simple haste might also result in dogs being able to run free, potentially bringing harm to themselves or others. The Council appears to have greenlighted CB-59, the P3 arrangement for the new courthouse, without fully understanding it. In my opinion, they showed both haste and a lack of attention to detail. They valued speed over detail. Did they sacrifice time and accountability that is due their existing office to campaigning for the next? Did the Executive simply trust his staff and friends in business without truly looking over the details?  Was everyone just focused on fast action to assure their names will appear on the brass plate in the new courthouse?

Through their action/inaction they figuratively unleashed the mythological dogs of war, ‘allowing a bad thing to enter the world without restraint.’ In this case, the dogs of P3 (Public/Private Partnership for the Courthouse construction financing) were released to join the pack of wild TIFs (Tax Increment Financing Plans for downtown Columbia and others). I fear this combined ‘pack of dogs’ may haunt the County’s financial future for decades.

It is the job of watch dogs, of all shapes and sizes to pay attention and to alert us to threats, real or perceived. Sometimes it takes maintaining a close eye or ear—or sniffing things out. Our Council members, Executive, and County employees have a similar role. Yet when it comes to the courthouse, I’m not confident everyone earned their kibble. Issues which should have been obvious, appear to have gotten by them.

It was startling to have the Council learn only days before the final vote that the new facility was going to be THREE times the size of the existing one, despite HC not even qualifying for an additional judge. Was this size specified in the RFP? Is so, why? If not, why weren’t the proposals directed to a more reasonable size given costs for both construction and maintenance would relate directly to square feet involved.  Is this a continuation of the County’s ‘Edifice Complex’ where each subsequent building has to exceed the previous in costs and features? 

Only Council Members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa voted to table the bill, as citizens requested, in order to get clarification on multiple issues. Having already passed bills and resolutions carefully constructed by the Administration to pave the way for CB 54, four of the Council members clearly simply wanted to be done with it.  Dr. Ball was ultimately the sole dissenting vote on the bill. From my perspective, the other Council members are all in the doghouse.

So why is my brain seemingly stalled on references to dogs since Friday’s meeting? The explanation is simple. As if I didn’t already feel like someone had shot my dog, in addition to the disappointing vote on the courthouse debacle there came disappointing votes on the ethics bill (only to do the bare minimum required by state deadline, the rest tabled), repealing the mobile home site rental tax (tabled for financial need info), amending requirements for development on scenic roads (tabled to stall), extension of the planned service area for Erickson development opening the west to additional development (passed). If it weren’t for the passage of the delay in permits for the Tiber and Plumtree watersheds the session would have been a real dog.

Before concluding the session, CB39 referring to specifying sheltering, tethering and other animal control regulations was removed from the table in time to assure the bill didn’t expire.  The amount of time, effort, and attention to detail from citizen input that went into revising this DOG BILL  was MANY, MANY TIMES greater than that applied to the 452 MILLION DOLLAR+ COURTHOUSE DEAL. The contrast was so striking!!!  One must conclude that clearly HoCo is going to the dogs.  Or is it that our politicians fear the backlash of the large dog (owner) vote more than they fear the minute proportion of voters knowledgeable about the complexity of the courthouse decision……?

I’ll conclude by adding that it disturbs me that a new 21 firm entity, each with its own staffs and subcontractors will carry out the design, construction and 30 years of maintenance for the new courthouse. Prior to this new experimental way of creating a building, County staff was accountable to the public to administer and supervise such tasks.  It reminds me of the advice, “Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself’ which means “Don’t pay someone to do a task and then do it yourself.” County folks will still be involved (one would hope) in assuring that contractual arrangements are met.

While most of the Council offhandedly negated my concerns, it is reassuring to receive private communications from persons with lots of experience bidding, negotiating, and building federal and state projects. Their conclusions provide affirmation of my thought process and concerns. They too are concerned about the cost of the courthouse, and more importantly – the process chosen to design, build and finance the work. They conclude “In the method they’ve chosen the county has decided it doesn’t want to manage the work.  They’ve chosen not to manage the risk.  But what they have chosen in this process is for Howard County Taxpayers to pay for this decision.   They have chosen the most expensive method to build a project.  It  also requires the least amount of government oversight. Something doesn’t seem quite right to me in this process.”

To the others out there who share this concern, only time will tell. For now all we can do is commit to continued vigilance, to laser focused attention and oversight. But we can at least take some time to recharge during August, doggone happy that no additional potentially harmful new legislation can be passed for the month the Council is away on break,

Evaluate all candidates and office holders on their likelihood to pay attention to constituents and to the details of matters before them—and meet me on the high road,

Susan

Full Court Press vs. No Press Coverage

Full Court Press vs. No Press Coverage

Full court press: noun (from basketball) an aggressive defensive strategy or (conversely) a strong concerted offensive effort to achieve or get something until you do get it

Our County Council has been experiencing a full court press (double entendre intended) to pass the most expensive issue before them this month – authorizing funding for the proposed new Circuit Courthouse. Unfortunately, there has been almost no press coverage to make the broader citizenry aware of concerns over a lack of details and desired research into allegations of irregularities.

Through a complex Public Private Partnership (P3) the new courthouse will be designed and constructed and then maintained over a 30 year lease period by a private company formed specifically to perform this function for Howard County.

The most frequently heard reason for needing a new court house has been that the current court house is overcrowded. Couldn’t the same be said:

  • for our schools?
  • for our roads?
  • for our emergency room?

Those testifying in favor of the new 227,000 sq. ft. facility to be constructed on the current site of the Dorsey Building on Bendix Road, all echoed how crowded and unsafe the halls in the current courthouse are.  I sure wish Judy Fisher George had been there to remind the Council of how many times her daughter has been injured in the hallways of her seriously overcrowded school! I reminded the Council that instruction actually occurs in the hallways of some of our schools these days. And let’s not forget the terrifying experience of having a loved one parked for hours on a gurney in the hall of Howard Hospital while waiting to be seen in Emergency or awaiting admission– because no rooms are available. Forgive my lack of empathy for courthouse employees and visitors, but I just don’t see that their wants should take precedent over other’s needs, especially not the needs of our children or those who lost everything AGAIN in the Ellicott City floods. The County has many needs. It is owed to the citizens that prioritization be transparent. And unrushed.

Here is the root of my discontent. Perhaps after reading, you too will be ready to send off a quick letter to the Council at councilmail@howardcountymd.gov to ask them to table CB 54-2018 until after their August break.  They are scheduled to vote at 10 a.m. this Friday, July 27th.

According to documentation at http://ecsmart.org the case made for a new, larger courthouse was bogus. For example:

  • Contrary to claims that we needed to accommodate a 6th judge, the State won’t grant us one because we don’t have the cases to warrant it.
  • Contrary to claims that our cases were being delayed too long, our record is actually one of the best in the state for timeliness
  • Contrary to claims that our court house is the oldest, smallest, most antiquated of our neighbors; it is not. And where did previously allocated funds for expansion and updating of the current building disappear to?

Sure everyone enjoys working in or visiting a lovely new facility with space to spread out BUT do we really NEED a facility THREE TIMES the size of the current one. [When MedStar Health decided to leave their 70,000 sq. ft. building on Sterrett Place to occupy the corner of Brokenland and Little Patuxent Parkways they only took 97,000 sq. ft. of the 200,000 sq. ft. building.  Why is our government being so much more lavish than private enterprise? Lack of business sense?]

While the new courthouse plan has been in the works for some time and much money and staff time has gone into moving it along the bidding process, it still needs further examination, including determining a baseline for comparison on whether or not the P3 approach is better or not.  What would the building cost if we did it the conventional way, like having a school built.  [The irony of the Council being poised to authorize $91 million in bonds for the project isn’t lost on me: $91 million is the same amount batted about as the price tag for the desperately needed High School #13!] But the expense of this court house doesn’t stop at $91 million. That amount just covers the $75 million lump payment in July of 2021 when the building is ready for occupancy plus fixtures, furniture and service charges.  It’s the 30 years of annual lease payments for facilities operation and maintenance that is staggering!

Council Members had questions for staff and the winning bidder during the work sessions earlier this week, including what the total cost will be. Council Chair Sigaty quipped that she needed them to provide that number because the cost estimates she heard from citizens testifying on Monday night were all over the place. Surely citizens were working from misinformation….. I listened very intently, hoping I hadn’t embarrassed myself. The $450 million estimate I stated in my testimony for HCCA was the highest one proffered that night. Well by golly, I feel like the winner of The Price is Right, coming closest– without going over! The estimate provided by the experts was $452 million over the 30 years. [But keep in mind that does not include the cost of utilities, or leasing space in 3 buildings to accommodate all the departments being dispersed from the Dorsey Building, or the cost of moving them or the occupants of the old court house to their new homes. It also doesn’t include the 4.9 million annual GoBond debt service payment for 30 years. In both the short and long run there will be numerous additional expenses NOT being defined at this time.]

I’m particularly thankful that Council members Ball and Sigaty asked so many critical questions at the work session, but why wasn’t the Council provided basic information about the deal in the first place? Why were those being questioned so cagey, (or visibly nervous,) providing only minimal details? How come it’s insisted the Council needs to pass the bill this Friday when the bid pricing is good through November 15th?

Once the Council approves the bill, there will be no turning back, no way out of the contract which obligates us to that debt. Should the economy tank or we face other disasters in the next 30+ years, the obligation to this debt must be paid first and fully.  Future Execs and Council Members will be forced to decide which other critical services and facilities won’t be funded as a result of shortfalls or taxes will need to be raised.

How come no one seems to be thinking about how the removal of the Courthouse from Old Ellicott City will further retard any recovery?  Isn’t it counterproductive to rebuild OEC and then eliminate the major customer base generated by the court house? Isn’t it pre-mature to be jumping all in with no plan for the use of the existing courthouse when it’s vacated?

Perhaps the P3 arrangement is not in our best fiscal interest. Since the public (and perhaps the Council?) haven’t seen any figures on the cost of constructing a new courthouse by the conventional means (even one double, rather than triple the size of the current one) there is no baseline to measure the expense.

I fear we have basically worked out a complex and costly P3 scheme that is analogous to a 30 year lease-to-own contract on a Ferrari…… when our Ford is still running.

I’ve only begun to touch on the numerous issues involved with this monumental decision. Act immediately, if as a taxpayer you’d like to see the Council conduct further research to assure all the issues are researched/revealed completely, from:

  • questionable urgency of need
  • to competing priorities after Ellicott City’s recently repeated destruction
  • to risking future crucial infrastructure and service needs by taking on this 30 year debt obligation
  • to contract specifics and questionable players.

Tell all the Council members to table CB 54-2018 until after their August break with one e-mail to councilmail@howardcountymd.gov or one call to 410-313-2001 —and meet me on the high road,

Susan

 

 

Recount confirms Walsh victory in D1

Recount confirms Walsh victory in D1

Some photos and comments from this morning:

The public was invited to watch the recount of votes today in the District 1 Council race  where Liz Walsh had been leading incumbent Jon Weinstein by just 2 votes. Several dozen citizens walked through this entrance to the Board of Elections’ warehouse to witness history in the making.

 

Seven and eleven are often considered lucky numbers.  On today’s date 7/11, it was indeed a lucky outcome for Liz Walsh and her supporters.  Ultimately, the final total after the recount was 3,175 for newcomer Walsh to 3,169 for Weinstein, a margin of just 6 votes. The recount process was run efficiently and smoothly and was complimented upon by the State Board of Elections.

 

After the recount was complete, Walsh was surrounded by her team of campaigners and supporters, their big smiles prominently displayed. Many agree that over development was a key issue in the campaign. If anyone doubted that EVERY vote counts, there is much to be learned from this race!  Hopefully it will signal a great turnout in November.

 

 

How will the event be remembered by those in attendance?  Scientific studies show that our olfactory sense is key in triggering memories.  Pizza just might be the “smell of victory.”  Anticipating a long full day of counting, the Board of elections had ordered numerous pizzas to provide lunch for all of the workers involved. They generously shared lunch as well as gallons of coffee, energy drinks, and donuts with citizens, proving that it is good to participate in the democratic process.  Arduous campaigning is clearly fueled by caffeine, sugar, and carbs, right to the final count.

indulge in whatever it takes to keep YOUR energy up to be an active participant in our November elections (perhaps a belief that change for the better can happen will be sufficient)–and meet me on the high road,

Susan

 

 

How come the Primaries produced some surprises?

How come the Primaries produced some surprises?

Now that most of the dust has settled on the June 26th primaries, it is a good time to look for patterns and to make some observations. Here is my take away. The results of the Howard County Primary Election highlight the growing discontent of citizens concerned with the results of over development and the influence of campaign contributions.

PRIME EXAMPLES:

  • In a surprise upset, incumbent District One Council Member Weinstein has been defeated by two votes after the counting of provisional and absentee ballots! His opponent, political newcomer Liz Walsh, joined the race late with a campaign heavily devoted to over development as a causal factor in both the repeated flooding of Ellicott City and the overcrowding of schools. Ms. Walsh had only 1/30 of the funding of Mr. Weinstein’s campaign war chest, proving that it IS possible to run a successful campaign on a budget.
  • The words ‘Slow Growth Dunbar’ appear to have resonated with over 5000 voters in the Democrat County Executive vote. While this posed no threat to Councilman Ball with 5 times that amount of votes, it nevertheless makes a statement on how folks are feeling. Granted Republican voter turnout was low due to almost no contested races, but Mr. Dunbar garnered more than half as many votes as incumbent County Exec. Kittleman. [Almost 24% of the County’s registered voters are not members of either the D’s or the R’s and were thus unable to participate in the Primary Election except for Board of Education. They will clearly be the swing vote in November.]
  • Council Chair Sigaty, high density advocate and champion of ‘urbanizing’ all parts of Howard County, was soundly defeated in her bid for the State Senate. Her amendments to the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, increased housing allocations for Downtown Columbia and stance on adding industrial mulching and composting in the West raised the ire of voters countywide. No amount of campaign contributions or endorsements could wipe clean her voting record.
  • Unopposed District 5 Democrat candidate, newcomer China Williams, campaigned vigorously to protect the West from encroaching development, the extension of the Public Service Area and the proliferation of solar ‘farms’. This newcomer received more votes than the two Republican candidates combined! Is this the year GOP tradition is broken in the West?

What has brought on the shifting of political winds? How and where did the storm clouds gather? Look back over the past four years for a number of reasons.

  • Citizen efforts to overturn a select group of Comprehensive Zoning cases was squashed by the previous administration. Sadly the new administration did nothing to prevent any of the citizens’ fears from being realized by permitting the dense developments as proposed.
  • New staffing at the DPZ made only a modicum of difference in the rubber stamping of developer plans, assuring greater and greater increased density under the name of “property rights.”
  • Then, even the most tuned out citizenry was abruptly awakened by the threat of massive redistricting of schools due to severe overcrowding. Suddenly children would not be attending the school they thought their neighborhood selection guaranteed.
  • The protracted process of a contractual assessment of development regulations brought to light many, many issues regarding our cumbersome process. It also brought about an awareness that there are NO real regulations in place to assure open space and preservation of environmentally and historically sensitive lands. The “pausing of the process during the election season” only extends the opportunity for more poor development decisions to be made, destroying the last vestiges of green space.
  • An incredibly protracted review of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance has left the public severely disappointed by both the lack of any improvements on the horizon and a realization that developers have been getting ‘a free ride’ compared to what surrounding districts charge to assure adequate schools, roads, etc.
  • And then came the second of two floods in two years in Ellicott City with the loss of yet another life……

These all combine to give citizens a great deal to think about in an election year—all while stuck in relentless traffic.

The County Executive and Council candidates should heed the warning signs and clearly define their plans for balancing growth with the provision of adequate facilities and services. Our quality of life– and their political future depend on it.

Prepare to be an educated voter in November—and meet me on the high road,

Susan