State makes kinder cuts in building new roads Wetlands, forests avoided, replaced

September 29, 1993|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

The federal government has a mantra when it comes to the environmental damage caused by highway construction: avoid, minimize, mitigate.

But when the state clears a 245-acre swath through woodlands in Anne Arundel and Howard counties to build a new east-west highway, it begs the question -- is anybody listening?

The answer is yes, yes and yes, said an emphatic Charles Adams, director of environmental design for the State Highway Administration. That message has come in loud and clear since the late 1980s when the department took a beating from environmentalists for clearing too many trees as it expanded Route 50 through Annapolis, he said.

Even State Sen. Gerald Winegrad, who battled for tighter environmental controls in highway construction, agreed.

"They [SHA] are much more aware after so many years of beating on them," he said. I don't single them out as one of the bad actors any more."

Today, the SHA goes to great lengths to minimize the damage even before environmentalists and other citizens complain, he said.

Even before the bulldozers began clearing the way for a seven-mile extension of Route 100 from I-97 to I-95 last year, the SHA already had spent $1.5 million and more than two years searching for a corridor that took out the fewest trees, disturbed fewer wetlands and still managed to avoid historical sites, homes and businesses.

"Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can't avoid them," Mr. Adams said. "Obviously, if you are going through a wooded area, you can't avoid the woods."

That's when the SHA engineers must turn their attention to minimizing the damage and planning how and where they will replace what has been destroyed to comply with state and federal laws.

When the SHA sought federal permits to extend Route 100 from Glen Burnie to Dorsey in 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineers said highway engineers had not done enough to avoid damaging 42 acres of wetlands along Deep Run, Stony Run and Sawmill creeks.

Once routinely drained to make way for construction, wetlands now are valued because they help control flooding, provide wildlife habitat and filter pollutants from storm runoff before it enters the Chesapeake Bay.

SHA engineers went back to the drawing boards to design bridges that span the low-lying wetlands. The cost: $16 million.

Although the $120 million extension will destroy 26 acres of wetlands, cross three major creeks and channel more than 2,000 feet of stream into underground pipes, federal regulators issued the permits after the state presented them with a plan to compensate for the damage.

In Howard County, state highway engineers will have to go through the same process along the highway's final segment, between Route 104 and I-95.

That segment, not expected to completed until 2000, was held up for three years after regulators warned SHA officials they would not permit an alignment. That alignment, which would have displaced 1,900 feet of a narrow upstream portion of the Deep Run and 16.3 acres of its wetlands, was replaced by one that displaced only 600 feet of the stream's main channel and 6 1/2 acres of its wetlands.

In Anne Arundel, the SHA will spend about $3.5 million replanting 245 acres of trees and re-creating more than 40 acres of wetlands within the streams' watersheds, mostly along Dorsey Road. It also has agreed to reconstruct natural, meandering stream banks along Deep Run and two tributaries of Sawmill Creek that were destroyed by years of urbanization and erosion.

Because highway construction will disturb a wildlife corridor along Sawmill Creek, the agency has promised to re-forest an additional 22 acres near Baltimore & Annapolis Boulevard between Queenstown and Friendship parks.

State law requires SHA to re-plant as many trees as possible along the highway's edge, in its median and within interchanges. Additional trees are to be planted within the Deep Run, Stony Run and Sawmill watersheds, Mr. Adams said.

Environmentalists who have taken the SHA to task in the past now applaud it for adopting techniques and spending money to minimize environmental damage. But they are not sold on the idea that man can re-create nature well enough to compensate for lost habitat.

"When you plant an acre of trees, . . . it takes quite a while for it to become the forest you took out," said Rupert Friday, a land-use planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. In the meantime, where are the animals that relied on that forest supposed to forage for food or find shelter, he asked.

Ultimately, the problem is not that SHA clears trees and fills wetlands to build roads, but that more and more roads need to be built, Mr. Friday said. The true problem is poor planning that allows suburban sprawl, he argued.

"When you have to build a highway, it's going to have to cross wetlands somewhere," Mr. Friday said. "If the counties did a better job of growth management, of directing where the development was going, we wouldn't need the highways in the first place."

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