It is not clear to me what a resident of Talbot County should expect. But it is clear to me what we should not anticipate.
Talbot County, to quote its website has “the most shoreline of any county in the United States.” Six hundred miles, it is said. The shoreline, our boundary with water-borne grandeur, is the reason most of us are here dating all the way back to the beginning.
We see the Bay through our own interests. Watermen hope the Bay and its tributaries are a plentiful estuary for fishing. International tradesmen recognize it as transportation corridor. But most of us think of it as a recreational mecca. Generations have lived plentiful lives alongside this bounty.
Most of us, no all of us, are aware of the pressure we are putting on our waterways. The pressure shows up in the price of crabs as it skyrockets because of limited supply. Nature’s filters, the oysters, are mostly not around to do the job nature provided because of pollution. We plan a swim and picnic and get warned off due to poor water quality.
And then headlines capture our attention. The Preserve at Wye Mills (Preserve) is illustrative. Turning theory into practice is often perilous and especially so when citizen government deals with complicated issues, dueling experts and a lot of capital.
At the Preserve the developer wanted to get a permit to build 67 homes on 480 acres. The waste from the homes was to be treated, stored in a holding pond and then sprayed on the fields when there had been an absence of rain. It didn’t work.
The time-line of failure is especially disappointing and instructive. The first homes were built beginning in 2003 and the initial noncompliance began three years later. Essentially the treatment facility and I quote from public documents: “has been unable to comply with ….[the] discharge permit issued by the Maryland department of the Environment (MDE) since 2006 or 2007.” In short, nitrogen and phosphorus levels that were discharged into Mill Creek flowing into the Wye River were not in compliance for years.
Recently Talbot County had to take over the Preserve’s Shared Sanitary Facility from its owners. The takeover agreement signed by the owners and county officials noted 15 years of non-compliance!
“Tip of the iceberg” has been a useful metaphor and the slow-motion unraveling of environmental stewardship at the Preserve is instructive. What about the rest of the iceberg?
We are now face-to-face with a gigantic project, Lakeside at Trappe. It has been controversial. Litigation to stop it is underway.
The initial discharges from the first 120 homes will not have to comply with exacting standards. Perhaps there is an arguable case for some standard’s delay, but looking at the history of the Preserve at Wye one might say, “Why?”
Environmental rules without compliance oversight are superficial. To recall a famous line from President Ronald Reagan, “trust but verify”. The public might well ask is this another development that the County at considerable cost will have to take over down the road?
In two weeks, we will begin voting to select persons to serve on the Talbot County Council beginning in January 2023. The general election will be this November. The members of the Council have an expansive authority over our County. When it comes to environmental leadership they must begin to lead.
If I were a Councilman I would want, as part of my orientation, to know why the Preserve became a case study of poor decisions followed by woeful oversight. I would ask the fulltime professionals what we must do to make sure environmental standards are set, compliance monitored and timely actions taken.
I would look at staffing past, present and future. Do the Departments of Public Works and Environmental Health have the resources to do the job?
Finally, I would look at the relationship between the County and Rauch Engineering. Rauch represents both developers and local agencies that have environmental responsibilities. This fact makes it doubly important that Town Councils have adequate staff to assure independence and avoid conflicts of interest that compromise decision making. I repeat, when citizen government deals with complicated issues, dueling experts and a lot of capital it must have the resources to find the public interest.
In short, we have an iconic natural asset and must make sure that our representative government is up to the task of protecting it. We should not anticipate less.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.