Environmentalists wait to see how Hayden acts

December 16, 1990|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

When she was 8 years old, Kathy Martin could stand up to her chest in the Bird River and see down to her feet. The river has since become so murky "you can't see anything," she says.

So Mrs. Martin believes the dredging of the Bird River, scheduled to begin next fall, and the comprehensive study of the river's 17,000-acre watershed are both vital projects.

Robert Christopher, who lives near the Back River, says heavy rains bring sediment that washes into the creeks around his home and turns them a muddy brown.

For him, a top priority is completion of Baltimore County's six-year plan to rejuvenate the Back River by reclaiming wetlands, cleaning up debris from streams and establishing buffer areas along waterways.

Myrna Johnson, whose Woodlawn home is a few blocks from the Gwynns Falls, wades into the falls about three times a year to look for certain insects as part of a volunteer effort to monitor the quality of county waterways.

She is anxious to see progress on the Gwynns Falls Restoration Project, which depends on both volunteer work and county funds.

All three activists -- along with many others -- are concerned these days about how Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden will address the myriad environmental issues affecting not only their neighborhoods, but the entire county.

Mr. Hayden's predecessor, Dennis F. Rasmussen, enjoyed widespread support from environmental activists.

More than a dozen formed a coalition, the Watershed Alliance, that endorsed him in the election.

They credited him with enacting regulations that require developers to reserve open space along streams, with looking for ways to clean up watersheds and with launching an ambitious plan to dredge dozens of silted rivers.

In one of his first moves as executive, Mr. Hayden fired the director of the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, a Rasmussen appointee who got high marks for his programs. A replacement for Robert W. Sheesley has yet to be named.

Environmental activists say they had a good rapport with bothMr. Sheesley and his one-termboss.

"We're very concerned about the future of [the department] and about the direction the county takes in terms of the environment," said Elizabeth Healey, president of the Kingsville Community Association.

James Gracie, a former national president of Trout Unlimited who headed the coalition that endorsed Mr. Rasmussen, said he hopes tobe able to work well with Mr. Hayden.

"The reason we did it [the endorsement] was we felt [Mr. Rasmussen] had done a great job," Mr. Gracie said.

"It was nothing against Mr. Hayden," he added.

He said he wrote to Mr. Hayden the week before he was sworn in congratulating him on his victory, explaining the group's position and saying he looked forward to a good working relationship.

"Maybe a lot of people are nervous, feeling that we stubbed our toe and offended this guy in the election," he said. "I guess I don't know what to expect."

Mr. Hayden, who has pledged to make the environment a top priority, said last week that he will meet with environmental groups in the weeks ahead to hear their concerns.

He said a major reason he hasn't yet selected a new environmental chief is because he wants to be careful who he appoints because of the position's importance.

"Those kinds of things are very important because they mean clean air, clean water, the kinds ofthings that affect us all," Mr. Hayden said.

But Mr. Hayden, who won the election after calling for limiting government spending, may face some tougher choices than his predecessor because state funds for environmental programs are drying up.

The county has dredged five creeks since the mid-1980s and hopes to dredge four more in the next few years.

Baltimore County eventually expects to make improvements in all 26 creeks cited in a $57,200 consultant's report completed in the fall of 1989.

But dredging projects are big-ticket items. Dredging of the Bird River, one of the four rivers slated to be dredged beginning next year, will cost $1.2 million.

Donald Outen, a spokesman for the environment department, said the dredging projects were completed with 50 percent matching fundsfrom the state Department of Natural Resources' Waterway Improvement Fund.

The fund has meant roughly $2.4 million for Baltimore County.

But the state is facing a budget gap of $242 million in the current fiscal year, which is already half over, and a projected $204 million deficit in fiscal 1992. State and county officials say that, given the shortfalls, they have no guarantee the dredging money will continue to be available.

Robert Gaudette, director of the state's Waterway Improvement Program, said revenues are raised by a 5 percent excise tax on the sale of pleasure craft, which, with the economy in a recession, is expected to decline from $26 million to about $13 million.

"We'll continue to support Baltimore County, but certainly we'd want to see them use their own money before we'd give them a big chunk," he said.

"We'll have to be a lot more critical in the projects we look at," he said.

Mr. Hayden, who has been in office less than two weeks, said it is too early to say exactly what changes may be in store for the environment department or for any county environmental policies.

So far, he has sent out one positive signal to environmentalists, backing legislation to require developers to set aside 75 feet of open space along waterways. The measure, which is expected to be approved by the County Council tomorrow night, brought about 30 environmental activists out to a council work session last week in a show of support.

"I think it's good sign that he came out for that," said Mrs. Martin,

a member of Save Our Streams who takes school children on field trips of area waterways.

"We're all hoping there'll be others," she said.

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