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How come citizens have been bamboozled into believing that new State storm water regulations would protect them from uncontrolled run-off?  How come HoCo doesn’t codify even higher standards?  How come we continue to pretend to be a green, environmentally conscientious jurisdiction, when the only green that matters appears to be developer cash?

If you are really short on time skip to the “Really Important” part, labeled as such below.

 Numerous media outlets, both local and national have recently asserted that “development boosts flood risks”.  While there are those who’d like to deny that over-development had a role in exacerbating the storm which led to death and destruction in Ellicott City, there is much evidence to the contrary.  We must change our practices of building on steep slopes and concentrating too much impervious payment in a watershed.  Most importantly we must abandon the false belief that Maryland’s “new” storm water management laws are designed to protect us from run-off and flooding.  I put “new” in quotes because the law commonly referred to as “new” is The “Stormwater Management Act of 2007,” hereafter referred to as the SMA.  The specific regulations were ready for adoption by the jurisdictions in May of 2009 when a model was made available. Remember: In Maryland the state empowers and the jurisdictions implement.  The jurisdictions are free to put more stringent means in place, but must enforce, at a minimum, the State’s standards.

Interestingly, Howard County has actually never gotten around to formally adopting (codifying) these regulations. I’m aware of this due to the following.  In Marshal McLaughlin’s final weeks as HoCo Planning Director, she pulled together a workgroup comprised of DPZ staff, developers, and citizen activists to address codifying the Howard County ECP process (and also to consider the ‘redline process’).  Long story short:  insufficient time was provided to reach a conclusion by the meeting’s end. MM was to return to workgroup members with proposed language based on the group discussion in order to move the process along.  Just like the mythical Southeast Area Plan, this never happened.

flood warning signSo seven years since the State defined the specifics, HoCo is still ‘winging it’.  (‘Noncompliant’ was my first word choice, but that seemed overly harsh.)  HoCo’s Environmental Concept Plan (ECP) process was developed in response to the SMA, while it remains uncodified.  Please note that only HoCo calls it by the name ECP; the term is no where in the SMA. Our DPZ Development Engineering Division considers evaluations of stormwater management as the first step in the development process…. yet it is somewhere “off to the side,” seemingly with no real teeth. The ECP process is more like a rehearsal for preparation of a required Site Plan or Final Plan.

Now, out of the weeds and into the “Really Important” part:

Developers would have you believe that the State’s stormwater regulations will solve ALL problems.  They will even suggest that we should set our sights on re-developing older communities precisely because the SMA will eliminate the problems caused by stormwater from the pre-SMA established neighborhoods. (Of course developers will want to re-develop at at least double or triple the density, producing even more impervious surfaces, and perched even more precariously on steep hillsides.)  But wait………

 At a recent Planning Board hearing on the Lacey Property which is perched precariously high above Court House Drive, the developer’s attorney stopped detractors in their tracks any time they mentioned stormwater management concerns.  He maintained that there ARE no concerns as there will be NO storm water leaving the property— because the developer will follow the State’s new regulations.

raingardenI hate to burst his bubble and that of the rest of the development community—as well as HoCo residents and the Planning Board– but those state regulations are designed to address water quality not quantity.  (Somehow I suspect this is news only to bambozzled residents.)  Rain gardens, bio-retention features, micro- bio-retention features and retention ponds are all designed to keep water on the property longer so that it will be “cleaned” before reaching existing waterways which then flow to the Chesapeake Bay. It isn’t really designed to control the quantity of water which will likely overflow any man-made depression (rain garden, micro-bio-retention feature, or retention pond) in a heavy storm. It appears that the outcome of the ECP process is to direct this overflow into drains which then move the water to lower points.

If homeowners or HOAs contract with lawn care services, chemicals on the site will still be entering the Chesapeake Bay if the structures overflow. In aggregate these failures are not insignificant even when compared to the vehicles and raw sewage flowing into the Patapsco as a result of the recent flooding.

A steady decline in pervious surfaces (fields, forests, lawns) as a result of development (roads, driveways, rooftops, parking lots) has us on a path of deluded destruction. The result is amplified when that new development is on steep slopes. HoCo subdivision regulations prohibit development on steep slopes of 25% or greater, yet apparently even this can be waivered, as in the case of the Lacey property. (Note that the unpopular term ‘waiver’ has been replaced with ‘alternative compliance’. No comfort there.)

raingarden on slopeNew storm water management systems require maintenance, just as did the previous ponds and culverts. The average new home buyer hasn’t a clue that they will be responsible for maintenance or upkeep of these management systems on their own property as well as any HOA property. That maintenance is made even more difficult by the likely use of smaller sized piping which will more easily be narrowed by silt and other infiltration. HoCo’s solution to maintenance is twofold: 1.) Place covenants on properties directing the management systems be maintained and 2.) Send out an expensive army of inspectors and “fixers,” putting a lien on the property for the expense of repair.  Really??  How’s that working for you?

Numerous things need to happen to correct this situation starting with:

  • HoCo codifying regulations that EXCEED those of the State, so that both quality and quantity can be addressed.
  • The State should reexamine their calculations based on the changing rainfall patterns where far more quantity is dropped over shorter periods of time.
  • Protection of steep slopes and the watershed should be an absolute constraint on density.
  • Revision of our zoning code should include a decrease in density in recognition of the space occupied by required new stormwater management features
  • DPZ staff should not consider Forest Conservation and Re-forestation as equal things. The former, maintenance of mature tree stands, is far more effective a SWM tool that stripping vegetation and planting two 3” caliper trees per 30+ inch tree removed.
  • HoCo should follow the example of Calvert and Prince George’s Counties and codify the State’s recommendations on the preservation of tree cover.
  • Address SWM provisions in APFO. While the APFO taskforce was unable to reach consensus on additional provisions on this most critical aspect of “adequate facilities” there is nothing to stop our County Executive from introducing it and the Council from approving it—sooner rather than later, please.

I’d like to conclude by sharing the comments of a HoCo resident who is a graduate of the HoCo Office of Sustainable Community’s (OSC) Watershed Academy: “I paid for the privilege of learning about the importance of storm water run-off control.  It is disconcerting to expect graduates of this program to donate hours of volunteer time while witnessing the county allowing developers to strip the land – including slopes to streams- bare of not just trees but all vegetation.  The county is paying a decent salary to Mr. Caldwell (Director of OSC) to meet EPA requirements while allowing Developers to defeat his efforts. Storm water stewards cannot win against the insider power of developers.”

Join the discussion, refuse to accept that citizens can’t win—and meet me on the high road,

Susan