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How come no one was looking over what was being permitted at the Patuxent Overlook development? How come we continue to spend huge sums of money on Bay clean-up and local projects to correct past mistakes from inadequate storm water management practices; yet we continue to permit truly bonehead practices?

Shame on YOU Howard County

Just when one thinks that they have seen it all when it comes to development abuses in Howard County one will drive by an example that defies the imagination, an incident of truly jaw dropping proportion!

In an earlier post I commented that I pitied the fool who lived downstream of HoCo. I commented what a horrible neighbor we are, how we ignore the impact of our poorly regulated development practices on our downstream neighbors. I wonder just what the residents of the City of Laurel think when they look across the Patuxent (PAX) River (the border between HoCo and PG County) from the vantage point of Main Street and Route 216.

HoCo appears to have permitted the total stripping and regrading of a parcel atop the steep slopes which lead to the Patuxent River below. That section of the Pax River has been known to flood with some frequency and especially any time the dam above it needs to be opened. I suspect the thinking is that there is little development subject to flooding on the Howard County side– somehow making it okay to flood out the lower developed Prince George’s County side –not to mention properties along the Anne Arundel portion just downstream.

What makes the site which they have stripped and regraded so reprehensible to me personally is that the situation there in North Laurel very closely parallels the situation we are facing in Savage. If the DPZ has permitted such poor development practices along the Patuxent River, then clearly our fears that they would allow the same along the Little Patuxent are well founded. Both parcels sit on ridgelines above steep slopes to park trails below which follow along waterways which feed the Chesapeake Bay.

Both Parcels were fully wooded; all trees ‘must’ be removed to “accommodate the density” desired. Both parcels have waterways which need protection on two sides. In Laurel, it is the Patuxent River and a branch which feeds into it.  In Savage, it is the Middle Pax and the Little Pax. In both cases the HoCo Department of Recreation and Parks is accepting steep slope property unsuited for recreation as ‘open space’ which comes with significant future on-going maintenance costs.

Both parcels are infill situations at their worst.  In Laurel, a single home snuggled amongst the trees is being replaced with NINE single family homes with a common drive/flag lot arrangement. In Savage, land originally zoned R-20 (2 residences per acre) was previously rezoned to B-2 (business), and now to R-H-ED (a zone whose intent is to provide special protection to the environmental and historic resources of the area yet permits 10 residential units per acre). A total of 35 units are proposed to include singles, duplexes, and townhouses.

We will never recover the cost to correct the misguided storm water management practices being allowed.  When parcels are stripped of established trees and vegetation they are made vulnerable to run off and erosion.  If the top soil is removed during regrading and the soil is compacted to prevent uneven settling throughout the development, then the growth of anything replanted (reforested?) will be severely retarded.  It could easily take decades to restore the stability of soil near slopes which have been disturbed.  The best possible practice is to leave slopes and land proximate undisturbed.  I found it disturbing (no pun intended) that our HoCo regulations re: steep slopes differ significantly from those of the Howard Soil Conservation District (HSCD), the MD Dept. of the Environment (MDE), and the MD Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  Our HoCo DPZ is concerned only when steep slopes exceed 25% or more of 20,000 sq. ft. of contiguous land.  The other organizations define steep slopes as those of 20% or greater regardless of the acreage. They also have higher standards for erodible soils.

It has become a thinly veiled plan of developers to ‘give’ or ‘dedicate’ to the County as their open space requirement, those lands which aren’t buildable. By giving the County all of the steep slopes and wetlands for example, they can assure that the Technical Staff Report for the Planning Board will indicate “There are no steep slopes or wetlands affected by this development” despite the fact that the buildable parcel may now be surrounded by or immediately proximate to slopes and wetlands.  While an entire parcel may be stripped of mature forest, HoCo only addresses preservation of specimen trees (those 30 inches in diameter or 75% of state champion trees,) rather than considering ‘tree cover’ as recommended by the MD DNR and as codified by several MD counties.

We clearly need to do more to prevent problems rather than fix them.  While it is often said, it may not be true that “There’s never enough money to do something right the first time, but  always enough money to do it over.”  Strict enforcement of best practices and a healthy dose of common sense are required.  For example we must think beyond the initial installation of mini and micro storm water management (SWM) facilities on each lot. Will the future homeowners have the resources, knowledge, and time to maintain them?  Think beyond initial installation of larger “dry ponds.” Will the new Home Owners Association (HOA) actually maintain them? or will it be up to the County to intervene and remediate at taxpayer expense in order to meet State standards?

Hopefully two actions by the County will help to prevent the continued degradation of our waterways:

  1. The long overdue rewrite of our zoning code and subdivision regulations which is scheduled to begin soon.
  2. The proposed FY18 capital budget item to provide Rec & Parks with some funding to purchase sensitive land which become available along waterways.

The outcomes of either of those efforts is as yet unknown, but in the interim, tighter adherence to our existing regulations should be the way forward (i.e. interpreting zoned density as MAXIMUM density, not GUARANTEED density, and granting fewer waivers.) HoCo needs to be less generous in accepting those steep slope, wetland, or SWM areas which are sure to have subsequent on-going issues and costs.  The advice of the Howard County Soil Conservation District and that of the MD Departments of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Natural Resources Conservation Service should be respected and enforced.

Just as we need the many different law enforcement entities (FBI, CIA, HSS, state and local PD) to work cooperatively to protect us from terrorism, so too do we need government agencies (DPZ, DILP, SCD, DNR, MDE, NRCS) to protect us from what amounts to eco-terrorism by the development process. And of course, good leadership and a vision of what we want the future HoCo of our children and grandchildren to be like, would help tremendously.

Insist on better oversight and outcomes—and meet me on the high road—