Howard council seeks own review of proposed rail facility

Environmental analysis would follow federal process

May 19, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

As Elkridge residents try to block a large CSX rail cargo transfer facility from their neighborhood, Howard County Council members are moving to get their own environmental analyses of two possible county sites for the $150 million project.

The idea is to give county government and local residents "another layer of oversight," said County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents Elkridge and is the resolution's main sponsor.

Watson has support from two other council members, giving the measure majority support on the five-member council. The original version calls for county agencies to help the all-volunteer Environmental Sustainability Board to produce its own study of the two Howard sites by Sept. 1.

But at a council public hearing Monday night, county environmental director Joshua Feldmark said that would be like asking the county to try to duplicate the 9- to 12-month federal National Environmental Policy Act review required by the Federal Railroad Administration, which is being asked to pay for half the project.

"It is not reasonable to expect that the board could replicate the NEPA process," and especially not by September, Feldmark said, suggesting instead that the county board review and analyze the NEPA study results and offer suggestions. Council members offered no objections to that change at the hearing in the George Howard building.

"I think this makes a lot of sense. We don't want a duplicative process," said Watson.

"They'll almost act as a translator," she added, describing the county board's role. Council Chairman Calvin Ball and member Jen Terrasa, both Democrats, are co-sponsors.

"This will …help us interpret the NEPA process," Watson said during the hearing. "Since none of us really knows what NEPA will say, this will help evaluate what we can do to make sure we're doing everything we can to protect the environment," Watson said. A final vote on the resolution is scheduled for June 6.

Elkridge residents, aided by Watson, have mounted a strong campaign to take one site at Hanover and Race roads in their community off the list because there are 365 homes within a quarter-mile of the site along the main Camden line railroad tracks. They contend that noise, heavy trucks and idling trains will destroy their peace and reduce home values, while the other Howard site in Jessup has only 21 homes nearby and an Arundel site across the tracks next to a state prison has none.

State transportation and railroad officials say the 70-acre station would boost Baltimore's port by allowing huge cargo shipping containers to be stacked two-high on rail cars headed west. Double stacking can't be done at the port itself because the loaded rail cars won't fit through Baltimore's 19th-Century Howard Street rail tunnel.

As a result, four possible sites south of the tunnel, including the two in Howard County, one in Anne Arundel and one in Beltsville, are awaiting final evaluation. County officials and local state legislators have said they want the project built, but not at the Elkridge site. County Executive Ken Ulman has said he's sure it won't go in Elkridge, but the site is still on the list, which is also complicating county school board plans to build a new elementary school nearby.

The residents are skeptical, charging that the railroad and state officials kept the public in the dark while the primary sites were selected, and concealed the fact that acting through an intermediary, CSX had already purchased two of 12 parcels needed for the project at Elkridge. They fear the railroad will use the federal NEPA process merely to justify what they've already decided to do anyway.

"It's kinda like the wolf watching the hen house," said Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, which has led the public campaign against the Hanover Road site. He contends the detailed federal process is designed to defeat any community objections with mitigation measures like fences or landscaping.

Johnson said his group's research hasn't found a NEPA process that said a project should not be built. "That's the concern. We haven't found anything that hasn't been able to be mitigated," he said. "There's always a good enough solution."

Solar tax credits

In council discussion of another environmental bill, an Oakland Mills resident objected to Feldmark's plans to end the county's tax credit program for people who buy solar or geothermal home energy systems.

A bill adding money to the program next year to help pay off hundreds of residents who bought the systems and are waiting for their payback is one of the budget bills before the council. The bill would double next year's appropriation to $500,000 to reduce waiting and pay the credits faster, but would end the credit program for anyone signing a contract for the systems after the May 25 vote. Feldmark later said it would still take a total of $1.4 million through fiscal 2015 to pay off all the qualified applicants on the list

"It really has done its projected purpose of giving a kick-start to the industry," Feldmark told the council.

Paul Verchinski, a 66-year-old civil engineer, said that eliminating the credits would add years to the time for a system to pay for itself, making it less attractive to many residents.

"I believe it is short-sighted" to end the program, said Verchinski, who installed a $24,000 solar system on his roof and with a combination of federal, state and county credits is getting $16,200 back. He's due to get his county credit next year, he said. With the county credit, the payback takes five years, he said, compared to nine years without it.

"Homes generally turn over every five to six years. Why would anyone do this?" he said, if they couldn't benefit financially before selling the house? He urged the council to kill the bill.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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