There is not much new to be said about the tragic flooding in Ellicott City just 666 days after the previous devastation. So I am reposting a trio of blogs published about the 2016 flood which have implications for development in all of Howard County. Sadly residents and business owners will be doing a lot of Washing, Rinsing, and Repeating as they labor to remove the mud and sediment from their homes and shops.
Read again or read anew—and meet me on the high road,
At the County Executive’s Town Hall Meeting on May 3 he indicated that the Savage Park land swap “….might not happen.” While I was elated by this ray of hope, he, like many county employee’s, can’t resist blaming the community for the situation. They are in fact echoing exactly the version the developer has wanted them to buy in to, without considering the facts.
Laying To Rest the Howard County & Developer Defense That “The Community Asked for The Swap.”
- The current land swap proposal bears no similarity to the swap originally proposed by residents. We asked for A swap to be considered to protect the Little Patuxent, not THE swap presented as a result of discussions between the developer and HoCo– without the community in the loop.
Sketch of initial swap plan showing development moved significantly north and east
- The current land swap proposal bears no resemblance to the original proposal from the development project manager’s draft. While the first plan showed movement north, half the depth of the Mill parking lot, currently the development ends just 2 car lengths from the southern boundary of the Mill parking lot. The southernmost house has only moved 30 feet north, but Savage Park stands to lose almost 3 acres in the ‘exchange’.
- The developer ignored the community’s request to consider a swap and submitted their Environmental Concept Plan (ECP 14-029) on 4/2/14. That plan ‘assumed’ HoCo would give the developer the public land needed for an access road and for 3 stormwater features to handle runoff from that road.
- The land swap was only considered by the developer after it was clear that the County could not just give the public land needed for access to the landlocked parcel since the adjoining parkland had been purchased with federal Land and Water Conservation Funds.
- With ECP 14-029 the developer faced the high expense of constructing an underground storm water cistern and a 17 foot high wall running some 400 feet to support the massive quantities of imported fill necessary to elevate houses to achieve proper flow to the connecting sewer line.
- In June 2015 a second plan, involving a swap was assigned ECP 15-023 by DPZ.
- The Community’s original land swap request (made before we were informed that the parkland involved federal monies) assumed rezoning of the parkland to R-H-ED to match that of the developer’s. This would have distributed the units equally across the newly defined site rather than jamming 29 units into 2.9 acres and 6 into another almost 3 acres.
- Despite the R-H-ED zone’s mandate to preserve trees and limit disturbance ALL plans submitted were essentially the same and have necessitated the clearing of at least 5 acres—more acreage than the original contract purchase! Regrading of ALL the land was also required. (Inexplicably the Planning Board in November 2017 approved the proposal despite the huge discrepancy between MINIMAL clearing and grading and TOTAL clearing and grading.)
- The footprint of the project has not been mitigated; it has in fact grown, as has the amount of impervious surfaces due to increasing the size of all housing units.
- Trading of the non-contiguous, steeply sloping forest conservation area along the river does not add usable recreational space to the park and is certainly not of equal market value with flat buildable land.
- The developer and DRP have presented NO objective evidence that the proposed swap will provide additional protection to the river (the entire point of swapping)!*
- The overall impact on the established community:
- destruction of a Targeted Ecological Area which includes Rare, Threatened, and Endangered species
- an incompatible urban development partially within a National Historic District at a density far exceeding surrounding properties.
- degradation of the peaceful view shed of the river and trail below due to the developer’s insistence on 4 story townhouses closest to the river
- requires the loss of almost 3 acres of much-in-demand public parkland
- future taxpayer expense to mitigate sediment in the river and repair to the inevitable erosion of the paved access to the river from the west.
- The proposed swap is a clear WIN for the developer and a LOSS for citizens. The developer now has more land at their disposal than was originally under contract. They have the added advantage of higher-profit single family units and increased size for all units. Incompatible housing types and density within the historic community still prevails.
- The developer tries to argue that he has already reduced the number of units he is ‘permitted’. A MAXIMUM of 35 units was already clearly defined by Covenants (October 3, 2013) between the developer and the community that was created at the request of the County Council. A maximum is just that, a maximum, not a guarantee. The County should not have continued to allow the developer to hand pick lands being swapped to assure that the maximum could be achieved.
It certainly appears that the County is giving away public land that increases the profit of a builder who optioned a landlocked parcel in an environmentally and historically sensitive area and expected “business as usual” from DPZ.
The County Administration needs to be cognizant of how people beyond the Savage community will look at what results, since the Savage Park and the Savage National Historic District attract people from throughout the County and beyond. Will they ask “Why did the County ever let this happen?”
The Administration (from the County Executive to employees of DPZ, DRP, and other Departments participating in the Subdivision Review Committee) should ask themselves “Is this something we want to hold up as the best we can do?”
The time to stop the madness is now! THE EXECUTIVE should NOT put forward and THE COUNCIL should NOT approve legislation to allow the swapping of federally funded park land without:
- objective, scientific data to prove it provides significant additional protection to the environmental and historic features and
- proof that both the recreational and market values of the properties involved are equal.
- It’s the opinion of members of the Patuxent River Commission and an employee of the Fish and Wildlife Service (who walked the site and compared the original no swap plan with the swap plan) that the swap plan will be even MORE damaging to the Patuxent River watershed, especially from sedimentation down the steepest slope on the West side.
- Regarding equivalent value: Perhaps the President of the Maryland Association of Appraisers said it best with “….”if the two properties are of equal value, then there would be no need to trade.”
HoCo should confine the developer to the land he continues to have under contract and for which he already has an ‘approved’ ECP. In development of the Preliminary Sketch Plan for that Savage Mill Remainder parcel, the developer and DPZ staff should use everything which has been learned during the development of SP 15-023:
- STRICT adherence to DNR’s recommendations for any building in a Targeted Ecological Area with Rare, Threatened, and Endangered species should be enforced.
- Roads and SWM must come from the developer’s land, with access through the owner’s property.
- Without a requirement for a loop road, there is no need to strip the southern border, thus leaving a natural screening and stabilizing soil.
- Since R-H-ED’s intent is to minimize clearing and grading, the number of housing units practicable must be re-evaluated so there is not total regrading and stripping of the parcel.
It is the job of County government to FAIRLY REGULATE development, not FACILITATE it by selectively enforcing regulations. A re-write of our development regulations cannot come soon enough!
Stop this horrible swapping precedent from being set–and meet me on the high road,
Part One of this series addressed “the big shock” users of the Patuxent Branch Trail received. Until the historic home was raised and mature trees were stripped from the property at the Guilford entrance to the beloved trail– no one– no citizen, no trail user, no local Council Member knew anything about it. However they learned that the plan to build a four story self-storage building had been under DPZ review for two years. From my perspective, this “out of the blue shock” is analogous to the shock one feels upon losing a loved one to a fatal medical condition of which they were unaware or they had hidden from you. The sudden finality of the situation is crushing.
In Part Two we explored in greater depth the all too predictable, frequently given excuses to which activists—and anyone paying attention– are subjected. Over development was mentioned as a common foe and two new activist groups were formed in the Southeast in a week’s time. For those who learned the cornfield at Gorman and Leishear Roads was to become a development of 375+ homes (with inadequate schools and roads to support the development) their experience will be quite different.
And now Part Three of Deja Poo
Today we will head southeast along the Patuxent Branch Trail to Historic Savage where residents are having a very different development experience than those in King’s Contrivance bordering the Guilford section of the trail.
In Savage we have had FIVE agonizing years so far to dread the proposed ‘Settlement at Savage Mill’ (S@SM) development next to the Mill’s upper parking lot. Just imagine how many times we’ve heard the same poo….
From my personal perspective this has been far too much like learning a loved one has a fatal form of cancer. Cognitively, you know he will eventually be taken from you, but you cling to the hope that the next procedure, or the next, may put things in remission, may give you more time. You continue to pray for a cure, for a miracle to save what is dear to you. You try to brace yourself against the terrible emotional blow, the loss you know is coming. For Savage it is more than the loss of trees and park land, it is the loss of the serenity of the trail along the river, of the viewshed, of the dragonflies and eagles and songbirds and various creatures who frequent the area. It is also the loss of our history and roots, of our identity as a slightly old fashioned, small-town place.
Savage residents first learned about the S@SM in March of 2013 as part of the Comprehensive rezoning process.We aggressively, but unsuccessfully opposed rezoning for a high density urban project and have actively attempted to lessen its impact ever since. What started as a proposal for townhouses grew to include duplexes and single family units. There is nothing inherently wrong with that change in housing types—except it apparently necessitates almost 3 acres of flat, partially cleared land in Savage Park to be “swapped” for the developer’s steep slopes……. while mysteriously increasing the area of disturbance—along with the size of the houses!
This appears to be the first time that Howard County is prepared to “convert” federally funded park land for use by a private developer. Once the precedent is set I suspect EVERY developer will want a similar deal. It provides the developer an access road (since the original parcel is landlocked) as well as space for a large storm water retention pond to serve half the development, and lest we forget, the ability to import density!
Compared with the Milk Producer’s Co-op proposed development, S@SM’s 35 units may seem like small-ball, but it is clearly not insignificant. The land the developer has under contract is a 5 acre, fully wooded parcel on a bluff above steep slopes to the Little Patuxent. It sits at the highest point in the town and is only accessible through the residential streets of the Savage National Historic District.
The Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources has identified the parcel as a Targeted Ecological Area (TEA), the “Best of the Best” for preservation and home to one each state-listed endangered, rare, and threatened species. The Savage Park land which is sought is also a TEA. Howard County’s own Department of Community Sustainability identifies both as part of the Green Infrastructure Network of crucial hubs and corridors. Members of the Patuxent River Commission have identified the health of the Little Patuxent as a D- (due largely to increased siltation resulting from over-development) and have serious concerns about the proposed development’s further denigration of the Little Patuxent.
The zoning on the original parcel calls for minimal clearing and grading. However, the HC Planning Board approved the plan to clear 6 acres of forest (all but one specimen tree) and total regrading, including the actual creation of steep slopes to support SWM and private roads. No wonder the State ranks HoCo Number One in forest removal for FY 09-16!!!
But Howard County’s Administration seems to ignore these environmental factors as well as the town’s role in the Industrial Revolution. Earlier mills in Savage pre-date by many decades the one you see today. The existing tourist attraction was constructed in the early 19th century to produce cotton duck, but unlike other mills, it went on to also produce the equipment necessary for other cotton mills to be outfitted. Property adjoining the development parcel was once owned by resident Commodore Joshua Barney of American Revolution and War of 1812 fame. (In addition to his brave war effort, he commissioned the flag which flew over Ft. McHenry when the British attacked Baltimore, inspiring what was to become our National Anthem.) Rather than prohibit or properly regulate development in such an area, the administration is instead facilitating it, including permitting of new houses in the National Historic District!
While Savage’s historic district has mostly 2-story homes on half acre and quarter acre lots (on roads), the four identical rows* of 4-story brick red townhouses designed to look like ‘mini-mills’ will loom above the river and trail at a density of 10 units per acre (on alleys). *To be completely accurate, one row has 5 units. That 5th sits on erodible soils and is within ‘window peaking’ distance of Terrapin Adventures elevated bungee jumping platform……but the priority, after all, is about getting the desired number of total units.
Since 2014 the Savage community has endured 3 Pre-submission meetings, 2 Historic Preservation Commission reviews, 3 Design Advisory Panel reviews, 5 Planning Board sessions totaling over 16 ½ hours over 9 months time. There have been numerous additional meetings with DPZ staff and leadership, the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board and leadership, the County Executive and Chief of Staff, members of the County Council, the consultants from Clarion Associates, and on May 10, 2018 we’ll address the Environmental Sustainability Board at Robinson’s Nature Center. Lots of deja poo about ‘development rights’ and the shortcomings of our existing zoning and development regulations, but little positive progress to save this environmentally and historically sensitive area.
The County Council can stop the madness by rejecting the Executive’s legislation to permit the swap when it is filed. At that point the developer will have the ability to return to their own 5 acres and try again, hopefully with the realization that the land simply can’t support 35 units. If the Council approves the swap, the next step in the decision making process falls on the MD DNR, and then ultimately the National Park Service.
Perhaps you’d like to urge them all to Stop the Swap and to Say NO to Houses on Parkland.
Remember: Today Savage’s Park. Tomorrow Yours?
Send your e-mails to those listed below and meet me on the high road—because some things are worth fighting for,
Joel_lynch@nps.gov (that’s an underscore between first and last name)
For more details: StopTheSwap.weebly.com
Follow: Protect Howard County Woods and Parks https://www.facebook.com/groups/463047500756980/
I last wrote of the ire of citizens attending a meeting on the degradation of the Patuxent Branch Trail who have heard the same “excuse songs” once too often. Ultimately the involved parties are to meet in an effort to reach a more palatable solution. But that commitment to meet followed many of the ‘same old, same old’ platitudes- from the County Exec, the head of DPZ, the Bike Howard coordinator, the head of CA. Rec and Parks said nothing.
The patterns of excuses in these meetings have become so predictable that I’m thinking of distributing POO Cards at governmental meetings (a 3 by 3 grid rather than the 5 by 5 of BINGO designed to keep track of hearing all the “standards.” One would mark off the square containing any of these excuses, working to get 3 in a row, or a T or a Z for the pros:
- We were just working within the laws that we have
- It’s a ‘by right’ use
- We’re not required to ___(fill in the blank)__
- We can’t insist a developer consider ___(fill in the blank)__
- We can’t ask CA to ___(fill in the blank)__
- There was a full review by all the members of the Subdivision Review Committee and ___(fill in the blank)__
- The County attempted to buy it but couldn’t because___(fill in the blank)__
- We never thought about buying/preserving it ‘cause no one ever asked us to
- We plan to do a comprehensive plan for this area soon
- That historic structure was beyond saving
- We’re running out of land
- We’re short staffed
- It’s not my job
- We haven’t gotten an opinion yet from the Office of Law
- We’ve hired a consultant and many hours have gone into assessing which development regulations may need to be changed
- We have to wait until after the election to actually begin work on changing regulations, so even though we are destroying everything you hold dear….we’re working on it!
Of course the center box, rather than saying FREE as on a BINGO card will just boldly exclaim PROPERTY RIGHTS, which after all, trumps health and safety, adequate facilities, etc.
Gosh, with so many to choose from, there could be a board game version. Who wants to play “Save Our Community”? Players assume different “targets” to save from over-development: historic structures, sensitive environmental areas, brick ‘n mortar schools, trails and pathways, roads and intersections, etc., etc. As they work their way around the board they encounter even more ‘standard’ Excuses and Occurrences cards like:
- The parcel has been upzoned again—even if not requested by the owner
- The parcel has been upzoned yet again —and is now totally incompatible with everything around it
- Surprise-an obscure Zoning Regulation Amendment (ZRA) actually effects multiple parcels not just the one owned by the petitioner
- There is an overlay to the overlay of the overlay zone
- Oooops, you only thought you had standing to appeal the decision
- Call it ‘Alternative Compliance’ and it won’t seem like a waiver or free pass to disregard the regulation
- Our engineers can design a solution to every storm water problem—flood plain, steep slopes, erodible soils—no problem
- If flooding should result—and it won’t—the waters will have been cleaned before they leave the property due to best practices.
- There’s no requirement to go before the Design Advisory Panel so they can build it however they want
- That easement was abandoned and conveyed to __ X__ developer previously
- It won’t cost the County anything….except for mitigation and perpetual maintenance
- We need to make this area the County’s economic engine
- Since old people have lower incomes, paying lower taxes we need to do everything to attract Millennials instead!
- Saving the WEST for agriculture takes precedent…..until the East is a ghetto and we need higher taxes from more development
- People moving in won’t have any cars or children—trust me
- And soooo many more
As I said last time I am delighted that new faces are getting engaged—and very vocal. Just this week, two community issues in the Southeast have gained tremendous traction on social media. These include 1.) failing intersections along Gorman Road and 2.) development of the Milk Producers Co-op land into 375-400 homes. Unfortunately, both new issues, deserving their own blog, may be traced to DPZ’s emphasis on ZONING rather than PLANNING, and to an impotent Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.
Now more than ever it is critical for citizens to trace back to Comprehensive Rezoning, to approval of ZRAs, to votes on increasing allocations and to supporting the status quo on APFO to identify which elected officials are responsible for contributing to the conditions which have resulted in over development and the destruction of beloved features like our Patuxent Branch Trail. They should not be returned to power or elevated to new positions where they can do even more harm.
In closing, some advice for those new to community activism: Beware of trends, not just in excuses. Be aware of the strategies used by our elected officials to dilute activists’ efforts by keeping us playing “Whack A Mole” on multiple issues simultaneously.
While you’ve been attending BoE sessions and pre-submission meetings and are possibly about to start the Planning Academy, you may not foresee the beginning of the “Council Legislative Whirlwind Season.” This is a phenomenon which starts with numerous Budget sessions in April and builds to a frenetic pace through July, often requiring additional sessions to accommodate testimony from angry citizens. Unfortunately, all too often, the really important legislation is delayed until right before the Council’s summer recess when lots of people are on vacation.
Citizen participation can be discouraged by including multiple controversial issues on the same night so that one group of constituents will have to wait until well after 11 o’clock to begin testimony OR be asked to return on a future date. This always assures a considerable percentage of participants will not return. Forewarned is forearmed.
Plan to dress in layers and bring caffeine to upcoming sessions—and meet me on the high road,
P.S. If you are tired of purchasing a different t-shirt to represent individual causes, you can get the great Deja Poo t-shirts from www.catalogfavorites.com to let ‘em know you are wise to their tricks.
DEJA POO: noun. The feeling of having heard this crap before
Those who have chosen a path of citizen activism are the first to recognize Deja Poo due to the frequency with which they have encountered it.
Those who only attend a very occasional government-sponsored meeting/hearing due to an issue feared to negatively affect them personally, may still think it’s just “Like Groundhogs Day” or “Deja vu all over again.”
But despite the hopes of our elected officials and County employees, little gets past the experienced activist. A case in point was the meeting held on March 29th at Hammond High School to discuss the denigration of the Patuxent Branch Trail where it begins its journey from Guilford to Savage. “Denigration” is a descriptor that would be applied by citizens and their defender, Council Member Jen Terrasa—certainly not by what some would term the ‘evil-doers.’
A quick summary of events leading up to the meeting: One morning residents of Kings Contrivance, and others, awoke to the dismantling of a granite house in the Historic Guilford Industrial District followed by removal of all the trees which formerly surrounded it. They learned far too late that plans for a 4 story Self Storage facility had been approved 2 years prior! For decades local users of the Patuxent Branch Trail, across the street from Quarry Park, have hiked, biked, and pushed baby strollers along this segment of abandoned Old Guilford Road as they approach the entrance to the trail which is beautifully adorned with the old railroad bridge. Imagine their shock to learn that the new Storage facility would be accessed along this remaining portion of traffic free, dead-ended Old Guilford Road rather than from Guilford Road which provides access to all other buildings in the office park.
I must freely admit that I enjoyed the high attendance and high spirits of the group that gathered last week for an explanation of “How the h*ll did this happen?!” and “Why weren’t we informed?! They clearly felt betrayed by HoCo government and the CA for not recognizing in advance how much this trail means to citizens—and not making the effort to work out a compromise on the entranceway to the facility at a minimum. Citizens clearly expressed their disdain for the governmental units who, even if they recognized a potential problem, didn’t put much effort into seeking solutions, instead hiding behind HC land development regulations and property rights. While “A Good Excuse Is One You Can Use Over And Over” is a clever saying for a refrigerator magnet, it is not a good defense against the ire of citizens who have heard the same song once too often.
In my next installment I will begin detailing the patterns of excuses, the consequences of focusing on zoning rather than PLANNING, the thinly veiled deals, and putting economic development above citizen quality of life. These constitute the main components of the POO. I will continue my focus on the Guilford end of the trail and then draw parallels to the situation at the Savage end of the trail. So much POO, so little time…. (I’ll also reveal where to get these great T-shirts.)
Check subscribe so you don’t miss a single installment– and meet me on the high road,