Category Archives: Environment

What’s an URDL?

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 10, 2017 — It’s been exactly 50 years since planners in Baltimore County came up with one of the weirdest-sounding bureaucratic acronyms — URDL — that in time has become a national model for sensible growth management. So what’s an URDL?

The Urban-Rural Demarcation Line (pronounced hurdle, but with the “h” silent) was a response to the phenomenal population boom suburban counties experienced after G.I.’s came home from World War II.

In the 1950s, Baltimore County experienced an 82 percent surge in residents. In just one decade, 220,000 people decided to call Baltimore County home. This set off a massive construction wave of housing and retail developments.

This, in turn, put enormous pressure on county government to build an unheard-of number of new schools, extend water and sewer lines and dramatically increase government services to new residents.

Particularly troubling was the helter-skelter nature of this post-war suburban boom, much of it posing a threat to the rural character of the county and an even greater threat to the financial health of county government.

Novel Notion

URDL was created by the Baltimore County Planning Board in 1967 with the then-novel idea that the county should focus population growth in a handful of prime areas inside the URDL while land beyond the demarcation line retains its rural qualities.

Today, URDL is the crown jewel of Baltimore County, having been recognized by the American Planning Council as the “gold standard” for preserving rolling hills and valleys while at the same time concentrating residential and retail growth in compact areas where services can be delivered efficiently and cost-effectively.

What's an URDL?

Baltimore County’s URDL–Urban-Rural Demarcation Line (in red).

Other jurisdictions in Maryland facing similar urban-rural conflicts have followed the lead of Baltimore County. And why not? It’s about as smart a “smart growth” plan as anything you can think of.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at a ceremony last week honoring URDL’s golden anniversary that in his near-quarter century as an elected official nothing else has come close to matching the significance of the adoption of this demarcation line.

It was a “prescient move,” he noted, probably the most important step taken by county leaders. No doubt Kamenetz, who is running for governor, will repeatedly remind voters in next year’s campaign about his championing and embrace of the URDL.

For five decades elected officials in the county have resisted developer pressure to shrink the rural portion of the URDL. Thank goodness for that.

Today, Baltimore County devotes two-thirds of its land — 258,000 acres — to rural and environmentally protected uses. The county’s 831,000 residents live on the remaining 130,000 acres, with designated centers such as Owings Mills, Towson and White Marsh targeted as sites for future growth.

What this means is that many county residents can hop in a car and within a matter of minutes find themselves surrounded not by suburban retail mania and clustered housing but in pristine, green countryside.

Proximity of the URDL

Try it. Drive to the Hunt Valley Towne Centre with its shops, Wegmans and dining. To the east lies the busy York Road shopping corridor.  To the south lies the large McCormick Business Park, but to the north and west lie scenic rolling hills and lots and lots of horse farms.

Indeed, the only direct route from Reisterstown to Hunt Valley takes you through one of the most wondrous byways imaginable — horse country with virtually nothing to mar the view as far as the eye can see.

It’s a tribute to the county’s leadership that such a large, suburbanized jurisdiction — part of metropolis of 2.7 million — still holds on with determination to its rural character.

Preservation of rural land keeps agriculture thriving, protects the county’s watershed, maintains the environmental purity of forests and green spaces and gives residents an enhanced quality of life.

Other Maryland counties faced with the same problems have done likewise — neighboring Harford and Carroll counties, for instance, as well as Montgomery County. All of them have taken steps to keep growth tightly focused and to preserve as much as possible of their rural heritage.

Too often, we only hear about problems and woes of local governments. Once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded of good news.

So happy 50th anniversary, URDL.

May this planning mandate continue to provide officials around the nation with a sound and sensible way to promote economic growth and vitality while also preserving the integrity of our irreplaceable countryside.

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Maryland’s Mixed Economic Messages

By Barry Rascovar

May 22, 2017 – Talk about sending mixed messages, the latest jobs report for Maryland can be read as good news or the precursor of bad economic news.

Maryland added 3,500 jobs in April. That’s good, right?

Well, yes, but remember in March Maryland lost 7,900 jobs.

Want another mixed message?

Maryland’s unemployment rate rose slightly to 4.3%. That’s a disturbing sign, small though it may be.

It indicates more people who had dropped out of even trying to find a job are once again seeking work. A larger pool of job-seekers could keep the unemployment rate in Maryland on an upward path.

Yet it’s a good sign that Maryland’s jobless rate remains a notch below the national unemployment rate of 4.4%.

Conflicting Federal Signals

If you want to see an even bigger mixed economic message for the Free State, look at what’s about to happen in dysfunctional Washington.

President Trump will be releasing his first budget this week for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Early indicators point to a fiscal blueprint that slashes domestic programs especially for the poor and the environment but is exceedingly generous to the military.

How do you rate that package, good or bad?

Here’s one more: Trump trumpeted his “great day” in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, where a series of tentative agreements were announced.

Maryland's Mixed Economic Signals

President Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia

The White House claimed these still-evolving deals could be worth $110 billion, much of it in military equipment, plus a still-murky $40 billion joint infrastructure investment fund.

Good for the U.S. economy, right?

But these are merely “understandings” between the two governments. Nothing is written in stone.

First, these purchases may take a long time, if ever, to materialize. Tough and lengthy negotiations lie ahead.

Moreover, the Saudi government is demanding that a vast amount of the spending take place outside the U.S. – in the Arabian kingdom.

Lockheed Martin is trying to lock down $28 billion worth of military contracts with the Saudis, including air-missile defense systems and aircraft.

How much of this work will end up in Maryland remains unclear.

Signed contracts could be a long way off.

And the Saudi government is insisting much of this work be done in their own country. It’s part of the push by the deputy crown prince to move the Saudi economy away from its current over-dependence on petroleum production.

There’s also a sense of urgency in the kingdom to bring down the high unemployment rate among young adults who are well-educated but can’t find work.

So there may be less in Trump’s Saudi agreements for the U.S. economy than at first blush.

Budget Blues

Maryland’s bigger problem lies in the soon-to-be-unveiled Trump budget proposal.

The Environmental Protection Agency budget alone is scary: Eliminating the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program, doing away with lead-abatement funding, cutting air and water quality cleanup grants by nearly half and tossing out lots and lots of environmental regulations.

There’s even $12 million set aside for buyouts and early retirement offers – part of the EPA’s determination to shrink the agency and restrict its role in state and local environmental efforts.

The good news is that Congress can disregard Trump’s draconian domestic spending agenda, though it is likely to give the military a huge budget boost. How the American public perceives this dramatic spending shift may remain uncertain until the 2018 elections.

Maryland and Virginia could be the biggest losers.

Trump can accomplish a massive government downsizing without congressional consent. While Capitol Hill may give Trump more money than he requests for domestic programs, the president need not spend that money.

This could mean more Marylanders thrown out of work. For state government, it could lead to a drop-off in tax revenue, a budget crisis in the State House and rising demands from localities for the state to step in and fund programs losing federal support.

Yes, the glass these days can be viewed as half-empty or half-full.

Yet it is hard to see how this is good news for those in Annapolis who must deal with the economic fallout stemming from Republican downsizing efforts in Washington.

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Grading Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Five vetoes and two major appointments in the past week tell us a great deal about Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. – some good, some not so good.

He’s proving to be a more conservative governor than voters probably imagined when they voted him into office. He’s also proving surprisingly doctrinaire in the extreme language in his statements and messages.

Let’s look at Hogan’s recent decisions and grade him the way his college professors might have:

Transit oversight board  

Hogan’s veto language is hysterical in discussing the Maryland Transit Administration Oversight and Planning Board, HB1010. His veto message is a blatant political document meant to rally the faithful. Hogan said  the bill’s provisions “represent a sophomoric attack on sound transportation policy by creating an unprecedented imposition of a politically-driven board to second-guess the authority of an executive branch agency.”

That’s pure hogwash.

This bill merely sets up a transportation advisory panel, another toothless tiger, like the earlier transportation scoring system he vetoed but the legislature overrode. But at least citizens who ride public transit would have a voice to express their concerns via this advisory group.

Transparency and public input are at the heart of this bill, two elements any sane politician ought to applaud. But by vetoing the bill, Hogan comes down emphatically on the side of secrecy and imperial-style decision-making.

In his message, Hogan made the ridiculous claim that the bill degrades Maryland’s quality of life and harms the state’s competitiveness – total buncombe.

He gets an emphatic F.

Morgan State University housing

This bill bars redevelopment of the Northwood Shopping Center in Baltimore, where student housing is planned for nearby Morgan State University – unless a local community group approves.

This is a local spat that never should have been taken on by the General Assembly. It is dangerous overreach.

Besides, the conflict between town and gown largely has been settled. There’s no need for such a disruptive and intrusive piece of legislation.

Hogan chose the correct path.

He gets an A.

Bridge over the Potomac

The governor had nasty words for this bill, which forces the state to set aside $75 million over the next 10 years to start paying for a replacement for the scary-as-hell 76-year-old Harry W. Nice Bridge that connects the northern neck of Virginia with Southern Maryland.

Grading Larry Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge crossing of the Potomac River in Southern Maryland

Hogan accused the legislature of superseding the “professional judgment” of his transportation staff. Au contraire, governor.

This bill restores the priority status given to replacing the Nice Bridge by the O’Malley administration. Instead of building a modern $1 billion bridge, Hogan’s folks want a far cheaper expansion of the existing, dangerous crossing over the Potomac River.

That’s not good enough. Until Hogan cut tolls on Maryland roads and bridges, the state had designated a replacement for the Nice Bridge as one of its top objectives. Now there’s not enough money to do the job.

There’s nothing wrong in the legislature expressing its will on major transportation projects. The long debate over the original Bay Bridge took place in the General Assembly. Governance in Annapolis is a shared responsibility – something Hogan wants to change.

Give him an F.

Supporting renewable energy

This bill forces utilities to turn more rapidly to renewable energy for electricity. It’s a boon for advocates of solar and wind power.

The current goal is 20 percent renewables by 2022. This bill forces utilities to reach 25% and to do so two years sooner.

That’s a steep challenge, even with subsidies from ratepayers that could cost close to $200 million by 2020. It may be asking for the impossible.

Maryland has made good progress on the road to renewable energy. But there’s a limit to how far this state, given its latitude and harsh winters, can march in that direction. We’re not part of the Sunbelt and state officials have walled off vast stretches of Western Maryland for renewable wind farms.

Besides, utility rates have been rising for Marylanders, many of whom struggle to make ends meet. Hogan is not about to permit what he sees as a backdoor tax increase.

He merits an A for this veto.

Education collaborative

This bill, SB910, runs into all sorts of constitutional conflicts. The goal is noble – a panel tasked with devising ways to help poor students do better in school. But two members of the General Assembly would hold seats on this board, which would hire a director and staff and set far-reaching education policy.

That’s the job of the executive, not the legislative branch, as any student of high school civics knows.

Hogan is right to teach the bill’s supporters a lesson in constitutional government.

His veto gets a grade of A.

New Public Service Commissioner

Del. Tony O’Donnell of Calvert County is the governor’s latest Public Service Commission nominee. In some ways, it’s a curious choice. O’Donnell, a former House minority leader, is a sharp, talkative conservative Republican who seems to have worn out his welcome even in Republican circles in the House of Delegates.

He knows a lot about the inner workings of electric utilities and the science of nuclear energy, having worked as a supervisor for BGE at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.

Yet he’s a pro-business Republican who isn’t likely to give much weight to environmental pleas for “green” power. He’s also not a lawyer and hasn’t steeped himself in the arcane statutory meanderings of utility regulatory law.

O’Donnell will bring an interesting outlook to PSC deliberations. But he’s liable to find those endless hearings dull, long-winded and extraordinarily dense.

Hogan could have done better. He gets a B-minus for this appointment.

New Court of Appeals judge

The governor played political favoritism here, nominating his chief lobbyist, Joe Getty, to the state’s highest court.

Yes, Gov. Marvin Mandel did the same thing with Judge John C. Eldridge. But Eldridge brought to the bench considerable experience with a high-powered law firm. He was widely respected as a legal scholar.

Getty, in contrast, is a former legislator and solo practitioner from Carroll County. He could be overwhelmed by the immensity of confronting 200 highly complex legal appeals each year.

Getty, a staunch but sensible conservative, replaces one of the most liberal judges on the appeals court, Lynne Battaglia. He brings a different perspective to deliberations.

But he also could find himself over his head, having never served as a jurist or been under the gun to write dozens of obtuse appellate decisions on technical legal disputes.

Hogan should have named Getty to a lower court so he could gain much-needed experience before throwing him into the judicial lion’s den.

The governor’s grade: C-minus.

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Hogan’s Holt Problem

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 24, 2015–Maryland Housing Secretary Ken Holt may be a nice guy, a financial expert, a former member of the House of Delegates from Baltimore County, a cattle rancher and a breeder of thoroughbred race horses, but he has turned himself into a giant liability for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Holt’s stunningly ignorant claim made at the Maryland Association of Counties gathering in Ocean City — that some low-income mothers poison their children with lead weights to get free housing — was so far afield from reality that both Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford disassociated themselves from his assertions.

Hogan's Holt Problem

MD Housing Secretary Ken Holt

The governor then had choice words for Holt in private about his “unfortunate and inappropriate statement” — but is keeping him on as housing secretary.

Holt’s comments were far more than “unfortunate and inappropriate.”

They had no basis in fact and showed an abysmal understanding of Maryland’s lead paint law — an area that Holt’s department deals with.

Lacking Evidence

Even worse, it turns out Holt has no evidence to back up his claim that low-income moms intentionally poison their kids to receive free, long-term government housing. It was an anecdotal story, he said, that came from a housing developer.

Holt told the MACO attendees that he wanted to submit legislation to ease the legal burden on landlords if their rental properties contain lead paint that harms children.

That proposal is now DOA — dead on arrival.

Indeed, Holt’s credibility with Democratic legislators has been destroyed by his hideous comments and intentions. Easing landlords’ liability for lead-paint poisoning on their rental units is a terrible idea.

Who’s responsible for not taking steps to encapsulate or remove the lead paint in these rental units? Holt’s proposal would turn those who are poisoned, and their parents, into the culprits while freeing landlords from their clear responsibility.

It’s idiotic and gives the appearance Holt is pandering to the whims and desires of landlords.

Reductions in Lead Poisoning

Over the past 20 years, Maryland’s lead-paint laws have led to a steep, dramatic drop in  poisoning cases, from 14,546 in 1993 to just 371 cases in 2013.

Hogan's Holt Problem

Flaking lead paint can poison children.

The law is working and the children living in low-income rental housing are being protected. Why in the world would Holt move to weaken this law without even researching the topic?

It raises major questions about Holt’s fitness for the cabinet-level post. He had no low-income housing expertise when he took the job. It shows.

What an embarrassment for Hogan and his administration. Is this the sort of pro-business “reform” the governor has in mind?

Holt’s blunder pretty much closes the door on legislative changes coming from his department. Indeed, it puts a bull’s eye on just about anything Hogan proposes in the next legislative session that would weaken existing laws designed to protect the public.

Bad Timing

The timing of Holt’s indiscretion doesn’t help, either. It looks more and more like the Hogan administration is hostile to Baltimore City and its minority citizens.

The vast majority of lead-paint poisoning cases are in Baltimore, and nearly all the victims are African Americans.

Hogan also refused to allocate $11 million in sorely needed school funds to Baltimore City, where the vast majority of underperforming students are African Americans.

Then he killed the $3 billion Red Line rapid-rail project designed to help Baltimore’s inner city residents reach job centers and greatly improve their transportation options. The vast majority of citizens who would have benefited from the Red Line are black.

Just to rub it in, Hogan snubbed city officials in announcing the closing of Baltimore’s detention center. He didn’t even give the mayor the courtesy of a phone call before his announcement, which was highlighted by his harsh and gratuitous condemnation of his predecessor, Martin O’Malley.

Anti-City?

The Holt fiasco adds to the impression Hogan’s administration is anti-city and anti-black. At the least, it gives weight to the notion that the governor and his staff are insensitive and uncaring — and not well informed — when it comes to urban problems.

The best thing Holt could do to help the governor is make a quiet exit from state government later this year.

He’s become Enemy No. 1 to a large number of Democratic legislators. Everything he says or does from now on will be put under a microscope. He’s dragging the governor down.

Hogan, meanwhile, has yet to take any major step that shows he understands the state has a significant role to play in uplifting and improving life and economic opportunity in Baltimore.

Fortunately, it is still early in the governor’s tenure.

The situation in Maryland’s only urban center cries out for strong leadership and assistance from Annapolis. That is Hogan’s most complex and perplexing challenge, one he has yet to confront.

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Fracking Follies in Annapolis

By Barry Rascovar

March 30, 2015 — Shakespeare, as usual, had it right. “Full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” That describes the squabbling in Annapolis over hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.”

It is Maryland’s phantom issue.

Environmentalists and do-gooder legislators are panicked that fracking will mean earthquakes, tainted drinking water, dirty air, despoliation of pristine farmland and other biblical plagues. They want to bar this drilling procedure forever in Maryland.

fracking-2

Hydraulic Fracturing

 

Never mind that wide-spread fracking has been going on since 1950. In those 65 years, more than one million wells have been fracked, in which a combination of water, sand and chemicals is pumped under high pressure deep into shale formations. This fractures the rock and sends deposits of oil and/or natural gas gushing to the surface.

Low Oil Prices = No Fracking

There’s only a tiny part of Maryland where hydraulic fracturing into the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation is viable — in far Western Maryland, i.e., portions of Garrett County and a bit of Allegany County. The number of farmers who might benefit from oil and gas royalties is very small.

Moreover, no oil or gas driller is interested in Maryland any longer. The steep plunge in oil and gas prices makes fracking in the state far too costly now or any time in the foreseeable future.

So the arguments in Annapolis are largely speculative.

Environmentalists continue to spout off about the doom and gloom that will descend on Maryland if fracking is allowed — part of a larger argument by environmental zealots who seek to ban coal and even gas-fired power plants, nuclear power plants, the export of liquified natural gas, as well as wind farms in state parks (they won that fight) and wind farms on the lower Eastern Shore.

O’Malley Study

The O’Malley administration, never a friend of business-development if it bumped up against the fears of the environmental community, forbid fracking for three years while it conducted a lengthy, in-depth, scientific study.

The results pleased no one: The research showed fracking could be done safely in Maryland, but only under very strict state supervision — the strictest rules in the nation.

Even that hasn’t made environmentalists happy. Nothing short of a permanent ban will satisfy them.

A bill imposing another three-year moratorium — totally meaningless in today’s low-cost energy world — has made it out of the House of Delegates. Prospects in the Senate are less certain. The bill calls for a 36-month study that would largely duplicate the O’Malley administration’s extensive research.

Meanwhile, a Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, offers an even more extreme step that kills any possibility of fracking coming to Maryland.

It creates extraordinary legal liability standards, calling fracking “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” and requires a $10 million insurance policy that must be in place for six years after drilling ends.

Few Side Effects

Funny thing: Over the past 65 years, fracking has been conducted without much in the way of negative side effects.

The industry has used fracking over 1 million times and the number of “ultrahazardous” outcomes has been tiny.

“Abnormally dangerous”? It would be hard to make that assertion stand up statistically.

It would be as if the Maryland legislature declared airplane travel “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” due to a few highly publicized crashes — even though the odds of being killed this way are 1 in 30 million.

The fracking follies in Annapolis are a case of populist rhetoric run amuck. It’s a do-gooder attempt to outlaw something that is no longer on the radar screen in Maryland — and won’t be for years or decades to come.

Waste of Energy

Making it impossible for oil and natural gas companies to drill in Maryland — even under exceptionally close state supervision — is the sort of anti-business hostility Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. may not be able to tolerate.

A veto could await either the House bill or the Senate bill.

Still, all of this is academic — an exercise in wasted energy.

As long as oil and gas prices remain depressed, fracking has zero future in Maryland. The legislature has better things to do in its remaining days before its April 13 adjournment.

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Phony ‘Rain Tax’ War

By Barry Rascovar

March 24, 2015 — Opponents, especially Gov. Larry Hogan Jr., deceptively call it the “rain tax.” But the name and the issue are about as phony as a three-dollar bill.

Hogan used his mischaracterization of the stormwater remediation fee to great effect in winning the governorship. “Why they’re even taxing the rain!” he exclaimed in a highly effective TV ad.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Governor Larry Hogan Jr.

It’s actually a broad user fee based on how much stormwater pollution flows from roofs and parking surfaces — runoff that can cause great harm if it ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.

Hogan turned this into a political anti-tax, anti-government crusade. For him, this unconscionable levy showed the overreach of the O’Malley administration, which taxed anything that moved to fund an ever-growing list of do-gooder social programs.

Hidden Facts

His propaganda pitch worked; now Hogan is governor.

He pledged to eliminate the “rain tax.” but It isn’t working out that way.

Here’s a fact Hogan never told voters: Even if he could eliminate the “rain tax,” that step wouldn’t lower state or county spending by a penny.

Indeed, wiping out the “rain tax” would have zero impact on Hogan’s state budget. Repeat: zero impact.

It would affect some county taxpayers who now are assessed a stormwater remediation fee on their annual property tax bill. They could see their county taxes lowered minimally.

Another Catch

Here’s another catch: In each of the 10 jurisdictions affected by the “rain tax,” eliminating the levy could force county officials to make cuts in other programs like schools and public works.

It would be a lose-lose scenario.

That’s because these counties and Baltimore City are under a federal mandate to reduce polluted stormwater pouring into the bay. With or without the “rain tax,” they are required to continue paying for costly stream restoration and other cleanup efforts.

For example, Baltimore County spends $22 million a year on its remediation work. That money comes from the “rain tax.”

Eliminate the levy and the county still must come up with $22 million for those environmental-protection projects. That’s about the cost of a new elementary school.

In other words, it’s a zero-sum game.

If Hogan were to get his way, county governments would be squeezed to find money for those mandated environmental activities. Other programs financed by the counties would take the hit, be it schools, government-worker pay raises, road repairs or social programs.

Symbolic Reduction

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz already has made a symbolic reduction in his county’s stormwater remediation fee, lowering the levy by one-third. He found roughly $8 million of savings in his budget that now will be used for these anti-pollution projects.

Stream restoration

Stream restoration project in Baltimore County

The county’s stormwater remediation work continues unimpeded. In future years, though, it could become increasingly difficult to find that extra money without cutting back in other areas.

 

Miller’s Plan

On the state level, symbolism is the name of the game, too.

Senate President Mike Miller, the most astute political mind in Annapolis, came up with the ideal Democratic response to Republican Hogan’s “no rain tax” demand.

Miller won unanimous Senate approval for his bill that makes the county remediation fee optional.

If Frederick County, Harford County or Carroll County wants to get rid of the fee totally, they are free to do so. But they still have to ante up millions to finance a long list of remediation projects.

That burden remains.

Indeed, Miller’s bill requires those counties to specify their remediation efforts and identify how they will be funded. Failure to do so could lead to a loss of state dollars.

Smarter county officials, who understand the value of spreading the tax burden for these anti-pollution efforts, could continue their fees under Miller’s bill. They won’t have to limit other county programs to make room for mandated remediation projects.

Curious Debate

Whether Miller’s “rain tax” option makes it through the House of Delegates is in doubt. Some Democrats there want to keep the current fee in place, despite the political advantage it gives Hogan and his conservative allies.

It’s one of the more curious debates to grip Annapolis in years.

No state taxes are involved.

No county saves a penny if Hogan gets his way.

The stormwater anti-pollution programs must continue — unless a county wants to get sued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Miller’s compromise bill offers a sensible way out for everyone. That’s why Hogan has thrown his support behind it.

Regardless of the outcome, this phony “rain tax” war will continue. Hogan will milk it for all it is worth — even if the facts aren’t on his side.

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Sparrows Point Gold?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 8, 2014 — Today, it’s a forlorn hulk, a remnant of what once was the world’s largest steel-making plant, stretching four miles end-to-end on the Sparrows Point peninsula.

Abandoned Sparrows Point steel plant

Labor Day used to be special for the 30,000 people who worked at the Bethlehem Steel complex at its peak. They churned out cables for the George Washington Bridge, girders for the Golden Gate Bridge and steel for machinery and equipment that helped win World War II.

Then after 124 years of operation, it was over. The blast furnaces closed for good in June 2012, the property sold for a pittance to a liquidator.

Now there is reason for optimism “The Point” once again might be turned into economic gold.

Baltimore County and the Port of Baltimore have come up with pragmatic plans to redevelop this vast acreage — 5.3 square miles — into a major jobs generator.

Sparrows Point plant in good times

Sparrows Point plant in good times

Even better, an investment group with deep pockets and strong local connections is negotiating to buy most of the Bethlehem Steel land in southeastern Baltimore County.

Jim Davis heads Redwood Capital Investment, which wants to become the new property owner. Davis’ name isn’t as familiar to readers as his cousin, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.

The two co-founded a job-staffing service in the 1980s, Aerotek, which morphed into the country’s largest privately held international staffing company — a $10 billion giant called Allegis Group with 12,000 employees and 120,000 contract workers. Its headquarters are in Hanover, not far from Arundel Mills.

Davis went on to purchase Erickson Retirement senior living communities and a host of other real estate and financial investments through Redwood. Now he is seeking most of the Sparrows Point acreage.

The Point’s Potential

If Davis follows the path laid out by a county task force and the Port of Baltimore, The Point some day will be humming with maritime crews, manufacturing and assembly workers, energy operators and distribution and freight employees.

It could be the most promising economic development story for Maryland in decades.

Nowhere in the Northeast is there such an enormous chunk of land already zoned for industrial use.

While 600 acres is heavily contaminated after a century of steel-making, some 2,400 acres won’t need much work to be placed on the market.

A good part of it overlooks the Chesapeake Bay — six linear miles of deep-water frontage perfectly suited for the port’s expansion needs.

Sparrows Point redevelopment area

Sparrows Point redevelopment area

If Baltimore is to take full advantage of a widened Panama Canal in 2016, it needs additional berths for the giant “post-Panamax” container ships (more than three football fields long) that require 50-foot channels and extra-long cranes.

Sparrows Point already has a 45-foot iron ore pier that could handle roll-on, roll-off cargo like automobiles and farm equipment; a second pier ideal for barges and smaller vessels; a short-line railroad that links to both CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks, and lots and lots of cargo storage space.

Dredge Deposit Site

There’s also Coke Point, where port officials want to deposit tons of dredged harbor muck over the next decade or two. Once filled in, this “de-watered” land can be prepared for use as a state-of-the-art, deepwater super-cargo berth similar to Seagirt Marine Terminal, built on dredged material from construction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

That’s just the start of the good news.

The task force, appointed by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, thinks some of the the peninsula is well suited for an energy park containing a natural gas plant, solar and wind farms, a biomass energy plant and a landfill gas plant.

This makes enormous sense. Central Maryland pays heavily to import electric power from out of state. It lacks sufficient transmission lines, too.

Neat Fit for Clean Energy

But The Point already has heavy-duty transmission lines that fed electricity to Beth Steel’s blast furnaces. Clean-energy production would be a nice fit, especially since the facilities wouldn’t be close to residential neighborhoods.

Other uses pinpointed by the task force include innovative manufacturing and value-added assembly for rail cars, ships, marine vehicles, specialty machinery and electric equipment; distribution and logistics parks, and “freight villages” offering warehouse space and service and equipment support.

Additionally, the task force noted a 400-acre quarry on the property soon will be ending its useful life. This opens the way for another “extraordinary vacant land-mass opportunity.”

Part of Beth Steel property

Part of Beth Steel property

It’s almost too good to be true.

And it may be. Davis has to finalize his group’s land purchase. Then he must negotiate terms with the state for the waterfront property. His company will be juggling many development balls simultaneously.

Of course, there’s the overhanging environmental concerns that first must be resolved.

Eventually, though, The Point might make a surprisingly strong comeback.

You couldn’t ask for a better located 5.3 square miles of land — much of it fronting deep water, practically on top of I-95 and the Baltimore Beltway, already connected to major railroads, a short drive from BWI Marshall Airport and at the mid-point of the East Coast’s massive megalopolis.

The State’s Role

It will take major investments from the state to give the Port of Baltimore these long-lasting advantages over other Atlantic ports of call. It’s not clear if the state’s next administration will be up to the task or if politics will intrude as the Transportation Department tries to find the money for this expensive project in its already stretched budget.

Given the recent debacle in finding a freight transfer site for CSX near the port, the MPA’s Sparrows Point expansion takes on heightened significance.

Environmental cleanups will cost someone a small fortune, though. It’s a key sticking point that must be resolved.

The county will play a role in smoothing the way for interested companies who see the vast potential of Sparrows Point. Baltimore City will have to make accommodations, too, especially in finding space to build a full interstate interchange at Broening Highway.

It’s too great an opportunity to let slip away, though.

For over 100 years, from 1889 until 2012, Sparrows Point was a beacon of jobs and success for the Greater Baltimore region. It can happen again — if there’s the will to make it happen.

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Racing: Green MD Industry

 

By Barry Rascovar

June 2, 2014 — Not far from my home, down a steep patch of Greenspring Avenue on the way to Glyndon, lies a glorious environmental sight — and a stark contrast between the past and present for Maryland’s horse industry.

Descending into the Worthington Valley, a broad, green panorama of horse farms reveals itself.  This is prime Maryland horse country.

As the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes approaches, with the best chance in decades to witness racing’s elusive Triple Crown for three-year-old thoroughbreds, it’s appropriate to review the state of Maryland racing.

Sagamore’s Renaissance

The vast 530-acre thoroughbred spread known as Sagamore Farm, restored to its earlier glory by UnderArmour founder Kevin Plank, dominates Worthington Valley, highlighted by Sagamore’s white painted fences and corporate training center mansion atop a distant ridge.

Sagamore Farm, training track

Sagamore Farm, training track

Far to the right lies Hunt Valley and the blueblood horse farms that have hosted the grueling, four-mile Maryland Hunt Cup timber race for 92 of its 118 years.

In the foreground, though, lies beautiful but empty barns on 100 acres of land. Their sad fate underlines the fragility of Maryland’s horse industry, just as Sagamore Farm and the Maryland Hunt Cup illustrate the strength of the industry’s future.

The empty barns used to have a sign on its gates that read “Maryland Stallion Station.” Prominent horse breeders joined together in 2003 to make the Worthington Valley once again famous for its thoroughbred champions.

Maryland Stallion Station

Maryland Stallion Station

What the owners didn’t count on was Maryland’s resistance to doing what neighboring states had done to resuscitate their horse industries: legalize slot machines and dedicate a small portion of the proceeds to rebuilding race  tracks and dramatically boosting purses — the lifeblood of the industry.

Horse owners quickly recognized there was money to be made in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania as purses soared at tracks in those states. They took their horses and left Maryland.

Meanwhile, politicians in Annapolis ignored the obvious trend and resisted legalizing slots.

Declining Racing Industry 

As a result, Maryland’s horse industry spiraled deeper and deeper into decline.

At its worst point, the state lost 80 percent of its stallions, mares and foals because of the poor business climate here.

Finally, the industry’s distress became so obvious Gov. Martin O’Malley asked his Labor Secretary, Tom Perez (now U.S. Secretary of Labor) to study the state of racing in 2007.

Tom Perez

Tom Perez

His impartial and persuasive report laid out the facts.

Citing a University of Maryland study, he wrote, “The horse racing and breeding industry in Maryland accounts for over 9,000 jobs, and has an economic impact of more than $600 million.”

“A decade ago Maryland led its neighbors in handles and purses — the amount bet on races and the prize money awarded to winners — and the number of horses being bred. These statistics are the lifeblood of the racing industry. But the introduction of slot machines in Delaware and West Virginia has resuscitated and revitalized the previously moribund horse racing and breeding industries in those states. As a result, Maryland’s horse racing and horse breeding industries have been placed at a distinct competitive disadvantage.”

Perez continued, “The economic impact of slots on the horse racing industries in surrounding states is undeniable. Slots have generated thousands of jobs in these areas, and are subsidizing other priorities, such as education and transportation. In fact, Marylanders playing slots in Delaware and West Virginia are subsidizing education and other priorities in these states to the tune of approximately $150 million per year.”

Out of State Competition

The fate of Maryland Stallion Station confirmed Perez’s findings. It couldn’t compete against breeding farms in neighboring states offering generous racing subsidies.

Who would want to breed valuable race horses in Maryland when the purses, coupled with large bonuses for locally bred thoroughbreds, were growing huge in nearby states, thanks to slots revenue?

Maryland Stallion Station barn, 2005

Maryland Stallion Station barn, 2005

The owners of Maryland Stallion Station made a valiant effort, but they couldn’t overcome the state’s lack of favorable business conditions.

They relocated their stud animals in 2008 and went out of business.

Revived By Slots

Eventually, with the booming success of Maryland Live! Casino at Arundel Mills, the state’s racing slowly started to rebound, just as Perez suggested.

Sagamore’s fortunes are proof that this formula — tying a percentage of slots revenue to the racing industry — works. Both Sagamore’s breeding and training businesses are on an upward track.

The optimism of horse owners, trainers and breeders on Preakness Day illustrated the turnaround that is taking place.

Most encouraging has been the breeding uptick at Sagamore Farm in Baltimore County, Bonita Farm and Country Life Farm in Harford County, the Rooney family’s Shamrock Farms in Carroll County and the impressive Northview Stallion Station in Cecil County.

Northview Stallion Station

Northview Stallion Station

But danger still lurks in Annapolis.

Politicians already are talking about reneging on their agreement with the racing industry and stripping away some of the slots money reviving the industry. They want the money for other, more politically appealing programs.

What these politicians ignore is the giant environmental benefits flowing from a strong racing industry. They should review Tom Perez’s findings:

Green Racing

“Horse farms occupy over 685,000 acres of land, roughly 10 percent of Maryland’s open space. Horse racing and horse breeding go hand in hand. Preserving a viable horse racing industry helps maintain horse farms and protect open space. . . .

“The importance of reviving horse racing and breeding in Maryland extends beyond merely supporting the industry. Every breeder that can’t sustain his or her business because of a declining industry means one more farm that might succumb to development pressures. Growth in Maryland will continue, and without a vibrant horse breeding sector those open spaces could become prime real estate for developers.”

Perez noted that Maryland’s agricultural land is disappearing. Between 1970 and 2005, the state lost one million acres of farms to development — one-third of the state’s farmland.

“Retaining Maryland’s agricultural land is critical to the environment, and particularly the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” he wrote.

Sprawl Buffer

“The key to keeping farmers on their land is ensuring their operations remain economically viable. . . . As Maryland’s population grows and development pressures force farmers out, protecting the state’s horse industry becomes more and more critical to sustaining the legacy of rural Maryland and maintaining a healthy environment.”

Perez concluded that the racing industry “is an important economic engine for Maryland, and provides an important buffer against sprawl development.”

The governor’s office reports that Maryland’s horse industry today is valued at $5.6 billion. The horses are worth $714 million. The farms employ 28,000 people.

It also notes this surprising fact: Maryland contains twice as many horses per square mile as Virginia, Texas, California or Kentucky.

This state’s racing traditions run deep as symbolized by the large crowds drawn annually to the Preakness and the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Maryland Hunt Cup timber race

Maryland Hunt Cup timber race

After Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino opens late this summer, more slots dollars will flow into thoroughbred and standardbred racing purses. When the MGM Grand Casino opens in about two years at National Harbor, still more revenue will come racing’s way.

What lies ahead could turn into a grand revival for horse racing in Maryland.

Necessary Upgrades

Of course, that will depend on the ability of track owners to use slots revenue for major modernization upgrades that appeal to 21st century sports lovers.

The industry also must find a way to underwrite year-round racing. (There will be no Maryland racing at all this summer.)

Maryland’s political leaders have a responsibility to foster the growth of horse farms and high-quality racing in places like the Worthington Valley.

It’s great for the environmentl, strengthens an important agricultural business and is a sport worth saving.

Worthington Valley

Bucolic Worthington Valley

A prosperous racing industry is a decided plus for citizens of the Free State, one that politicians need to encourage, not discourage, in Annapolis.

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Common Sense and LNG Exports

By Barry Rascovar

March 10, 2014 — FINALLY, a dose of common sense in the swirl of hysterical hype and fear-mongering by environmental groups over the proposed liquid natural gas export project at Cove Point in Southern Maryland.

Cove Point LNG Terminal in Lusby, MD

Cove Point LNG Terminal in Lusby, MD

If you listen to the protesting greenies, this $3.8 billion project by the large energy company Dominion will send natural gas prices higher, promote the use of dirty energy sources like oil and coal, pollute the Chesapeake Bay, pollute Maryland’s air, worsen global warming and encourage more shale-oil fracking.

Few of those assertions have much credence. Some are bald-faced, and intentional, twisting of the truth.

More on target is Virginia-based Dominion’s assertion that environmentalists are trying to use this LNG project as a proxy for their war on hydraulic fracturing of shale rock and the Keystone Pipeline. Neither has a direct link to what Dominion wants to do.

‘Clear and Unambiguous’

That’s why it was refreshing to hear common sense applied to this propaganda battle by Judge Michele Hotten of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, who strongly supported a circuit court ruling in Dominion’s favor.

It was “clear and unambiguous,” the judge wrote in a recent 3-0 decision, that an LNG export terminal is permitted at Cove Point under a 2005 agreement with environmental groups. Period. End of argument.

Those groups won’t let it end, though. They are intent on litigating this project ad infinitum — anything to delay and eventually kill this evil proposal.

The problem is that what Dominion wants to do at Cove Point isn’t evil. It isn’t a pox on the environment. Quite the contrary.

Proposed expansion at Cove Point LNG Terminal

Proposed expansion at Cove Point Terminal

Dominion wants to export $6 billion a year in LNG to India and Japan, two nations that are heavy polluters of the air by burning huge amounts of oil and coal. Natural gas, by contrast, is a far cleaner-burning substitute source of energy and a far more energy-efficient commodity.

Which is better: Burning coal and oil or burning natural gas?

We should know the answer since Maryland and most other states are forcing utilities to shutter their existing oil-burning and coal-burning electric plants in favor of the vastly superior alternative, natural gas.

Double-hulled Tankers

But won’t Cove Point harm the bay?

Not really. Dominion expects about 85 double-hulled tankers to visit its terminal annually — the same number as visited Cove Point at its peak when it served as an import terminal between 1978 and 1980. Besides, LNG is super-safe. If there’s a spill, the natural gas evaporates and dissipates because it is lighter than air. There has yet to be an environmental disaster caused by an LNG tanker.

But won’t Cove Point stimulate more fracking?

Of course not. That’s a manufactured canard. Cove Point’s exports won’t influence the decision by energy companies to drill for oil and gas using hydraulic fracturing techniques. The rush is on to discover more of this country’s abundant supply of cleaner-burning natural gas. If Cove Point never exports a cubic foot of LNG it will have zero impact on the future of fracking.

Nor will Cove Point have anything to do with the Keystone Pipeline decision. Connecting the two is preposterous and an indication of extreme paranoia.

Given that Cove Point is one of 21 LNG export proposals seeking regulatory approval — plus another six that have gotten the federal go-ahead, its impact in the greater scheme of things is being incredibly overblown.

Impact on Pricing

Won’t Dominion raise natural gas prices by exporting this commodity?

Pure buncombe. Two years from now, U.S. production of natural gas is projected to exceed domestic consumption. Energy independence is within reach.

Once the U.S. starts exporting energy, it will have a positive impact on shrinking this country’s trade deficit.

A new office within the State Department is vigorously pursuing “energy diplomacy” based on the growing U.S. ability to export vast quantities of LNG. Natural gas exports are likely to become a key geopolitical weapon against Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine and a way to draw that struggling nation away from Vladimir Putin’s grasp.

Cove Point exports, starting in 2017, will be part of that American effort. The LNG plant also will provide a big boost for Maryland’s economy. Thousands of high-paying construction jobs. Seventy-five new permanent jobs. A 60 percent boost in Maryland’s exports. A big jump in sales and income taxes for the state and Calvert County.

No wonder an overflow crowd at a March 1 hearing in Southern Maryland overwhelmingly supported Dominion’s project.

LNG hearing in Southern Maryland

LNG hearing in Southern Maryland

That hasn’t stopped the greenies, who rounded up supporters from the Baltimore area to stage a big protest as the Maryland Public Service Commission began hearings on this case.

Anti-Cove Point protesters in Baltimore

Anti-Cove Point protesters in Baltimore

But the PSC’s role is narrow: Whether to permit construction of two natural gas turbines that will provide the energy for compressing the natural gas to minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s when the gas turns to liquid).

Baltimore protest of LNG Terminal project

Baltimore protest of LNG Terminal project

The PSC’s staff has recommended approval. It’s pretty much a straight-forward proposal — two clean-burning turbines to power the liquefaction. The heat generated during that process would be recycled to provide energy for the rest of the Cove Point facility, thus reducing the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This project is being studied to exhaustion. Twenty-one thousand pages of reports and information have been prepared for regulatory agencies. Fifty more permits and approvals are still needed before the three-year construction phase commences. Final approval rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy.

That’s why it was refreshing to see the courts take a no-nonsense approach and examine the facts rather than heeding the heated, emotional rhetoric of opponents. But this battle is far from over, which is a shame.

#     #     #

 

 

 

Rainy Day in Annapolis Towne

(Note: This article appeared in the inaugural issue of Center Maryland Magazine.)

By Barry Rascovar

It is often true that legislative reforms require a second round of revisions to make them workable. That’s the case with the misnamed “rain tax.”

Passed in 2012, this stormwater remediation measure attacks a troubling problem – pollution of the Chesapeake Bay from pet waste, sediment, fertilizers, pesticides and auto fluids. Storms wash this scum off urban and suburban streets, parking lots and rooftops. It winds up in the bay.

Impervious surface

Impervious Surface

This is a huge concern for those who treasure Maryland’s most precious resource.

For instance, stormwater pollutants account for 37 percent of nitrogen in the Magothy River, 94 percent of excess phosphorus, and virtually all sediment and bacterial contaminants.

Fifteen percent of the bay’s nitrogen stems from urban and suburban storm runoff.

The 2012 statute requires Baltimore City and nine counties to enact a fee for stormwater improvements. It’s part of the state’s compliance with Washington’s “pollution diet” for the bay.

Permeable Surface

Permeable Surface

Little controversy surrounded the 2012 bill, but as implementation day neared in mid-2013, Republicans raised a ruckus. In a slick PR move, they started calling it the “rain tax.”

Frederick County Commissioners set their stormwater fee at a symbolic penny. Carroll County Commissioners defied the state entirely.

Other Republicans played politics, too. Laura Neuman, the new Anne Arundel executive, vetoed a stormwater fee (it was overridden by the council). She is in a tough race to win a full term.

David Craig, the Harford County executive running for governor, wants to abolish his county’s stormwater tax – though he introduced the bill and signed it into law. He also wants to wipe out the state law, a sine qua non for GOP candidates this year.

Like it or not, legislators find this issue before them in the current session.

No politician wants to endorse an unpopular tax in an election year but Democrats are in a bind. Environmentalism is a key part of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s national campaign and Democratic lawmakers won’t renege on their commitment to the bay.

The trick is making the law more palatable.

Republicans will have a field day protesting Democratic amendments, yet they know it’s all sound and fury.

Revisions could lead to a uniform stormwater fee in the 10 jurisdictions – such as a surcharge on the state property tax – or making the counties and Baltimore responsible for contributing a set amount to remediation projects but letting local officials decide how to raise the money.

In the end, a less incendiary version of the “rain tax” will pass. There’s too much at stake for O’Malley and Democratic lawmakers to back down.

Barry Rascovar, formerly a columnist for The Baltimore Sun and the Gazette Newspapers, writes regularly at www.politicalmaryland.com