Some Howard groups decry lack of resource protection

Inadequate funds, care noted for natural areas, storm-water management

January 06, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Frustrated by what they feel has been more lip service than action on natural-resources protection, local environmental groups are calling on Howard County officials to make good on old commitments.

County agencies don't have enough money to tend parks properly or fix old storm-water management ponds choked with silt, and other environmental issues are getting lost in the shuffle because they are split across several departments, environmentalists say.

Members of the loose coalition -- which includes the local Sierra Club, the Middle Patuxent Environmental Foundation and the Howard County Conservancy -- know this is a bad time to lobby for more money, but they say the environment didn't get much during good economic times, either.

It is difficult to evaluate because the county doesn't total what it spends on environmental programs.

"How do you know it's being adequately taken care of if you don't have any numbers to support that?" asked Joyce M. Kelly, a trustee with the Middle Patuxent Environmental Foundation, established to watch over the 1,000-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area owned by the county. "Find some resources," she added. "It doesn't mean you do everything overnight, but you make the commitment to begin."

The major obstacle faced by advocates is that environmental problems tend to be subtle and can seem like remote concerns compared with the obvious needs of public schools, many of which are overflowing with students. Education eats up most of the county's revenues.

"Much of this just comes down to priorities," said Victoria Goodman, a spokeswoman for County Executive James N. Robey. "There are a lot of competing interests out there, and this year is going to be tougher than ever."

She said Robey has been "pretty supportive in the ways that he can be" for environmental programs. An environmental steering committee formed in 1999 helps county agencies coordinate efforts, she added.

But environmental advocates say the county is delaying work that will cost more later.

Howard County is responsible for maintaining more than 300 neighborhood storm-water ponds, which help fend off flooding, erosion and water pollution when they work properly -- but many are outdated and filling with sediment. The county also must monitor and preserve 1,000 miles of pipes.

In 1997, a local task force determined that the county, to keep up with improvements required by the state, needed to spend $36 a year for every household and business -- $5.8 million all told. It was spending $13 per property.

The task force recommended that a storm drainage charge be added to the property tax. No charge has been added. The county is spending about the same sum per property, and the backlog is growing, said Department of Public Works Director James M. Irvin, who worries about how to handle the costs when the county faces tremendous school construction needs.

"At some point," he said, "we're going to have to commit more fiscal resources to the problem. ... It's much easier to maintain things than to replace them after they fail."

Irvin doesn't expect mass flooding, but notes that older communities without storm-water management systems often have problems. Clogged storm-water ponds don't manage rain as well or remove pollutants before they spill into streams and the Chesapeake Bay, he said.

The coalition of environmental groups also believes that the cash-strapped Department of Recreation and Parks, which handed back $2.2 million last year to help balance the county budget, needs more employees to monitor and tend natural areas. The department manages, in addition to sports fields and historic properties, undeveloped parks, trails and the hundreds of open-space parcels created when homes are built.

Tom Franklin, president of a wildlife business in Ellicott City, said workers dealing with safety problems and vandalism in natural areas can't keep up with simple maintenance.

Kelly believes that the county is not living up to its commitment to tend its Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, the Columbia land it bought from the Rouse Co.

Rouse put the proceeds from that sale into a trust fund for the land; the fund generates about $100,000 in interest a year. That never was intended to be the sole source of funding, but the county has contributed little money over the years, Kelly said.

Foundation members have unsuccessfully lobbied county administrators to phase in the salary of the employee who manages the area so the trust fund can instead pay for environmental education and restoration work, she said.

Gary J. Arthur, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks, said his department supplies about $30,000 a year in work, equipment and expertise for the environmental area. He said he hopes to cover the salary of the land manager, but doesn't know when his budget -- which accounts for 1.6 percent of county funds -- will allow that.

Ned Tillman, president of Howard County Conservancy's board, thinks the county could better leverage its efforts if it assigned one employee to help the many small nonprofit groups in the area win natural-resources grants. "We ... have a lot of stress in this county because of development and growth, so we have to do a better job," he said.

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