Opinion: Baltimore’s ‘most elegant’ new community not fit for a fish

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Brook trout by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Southeast with Flickr Creative Commons License

By Tom Horton

Bay Journal News Service

It has been my joy and anguish through the last five decades to keep track of little Dipping Pond Run, a rare and trouty tributary of Baltimore’s central drainage way, the Jones Falls.

Exquisitely sensitive to water quality, trout are not just a fish, but an idea, a synecdoche—something whose very presence proclaims that a larger whole remains intact, that in some small way we may be learning peaceful coexistence with the rest of nature.

Of course, this is Baltimore County, and I should have known better.

In the 1970s, as the Baltimore Sun’s first full-time environmental reporter, I used Dipping Pond Run as an example of a fully functioning stream. The superb harmony of a creek nurtured by runoff filtering through and buffered by a natural landscape, “translated into trout,” I wrote.

I was talking about native brook trout, the loveliest of fish, brilliantly stippled with yellow and red spots fringed by blue halos. It is no accident they are the state fish in most of the Chesapeake Bay watershed — New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. [Editor’s note: Maryland’s state fish is the rockfish also known as the striped bass.]

Development ends brook trout

Nearly half a century ago, development occupied only 2% of the little run’s 3-square-mile watershed. Much beyond that percentage, and the “brookies” start to have a hard time, biologists know. Indeed, by 1995, brook trout had vanished there. Pollution and habitat loss from incremental development, poorly supervised by the county, did them in.

But brown trout, slightly less sensitive than brookies, still hang on. Dipping Pond Run’s few miles remain the last refuge of wild trout in the sprawling Jones Falls drainage. The stream, trickling through the Green Spring Valley, remains one of the cleanest waters feeding the troubled lower Jones Falls and Baltimore’s harbor, both targets of expensive water-quality restoration efforts.

Happier trip in 2013 

So, it was a happier trip I made there in 2013. Vicki Almond, the Baltimore County councilwoman who represents the communities around the run, had courageously nixed all but nine lots of a more than 100-lot development proposed by Cignal Corp. on the grounds of the old Chestnut Ridge Country Club. Development by then had spread to cover 7% of the watershed. Any more, and significant degradation is inevitable.

I spoke that night at a community gathering where the Democratic councilwoman was honored for her efforts. She left no doubt that she — after reviewing the science, walking the Run and talking to the surrounding communities — had concluded that much further development would be ruinous.

But in 2016, Ms. Almond sent an email to constituents. She was reversing herself and upping Cignal’s zoning to 40 lots. The email talked about a need to finally settle the matter — Cignal had sued to overturn the downzoning.

The developer, though, had lost that case at every level but Maryland’s top court — where it would have likely lost again, according to county attorney Peter Zimmerman. “We’re confident we would have won there, too,” he says.”

Troutless future

Now, the future looks troutless.

“Castanea,” the Latin genus name of the long-vanished American chestnut tree, will be the name of Cignal’s gated new development for about 40 owners who can afford a million dollars for a lot. “The most elegant community Baltimore county has ever seen,” promises an investor with Cignal.

Trout won’t be Castanea’s only adverse fallout. That area of the county is already suffering gridlock at several intersections that get a “failed” classification from highway departments. Steep slopes along the run guarantee more sediment pollution. In addition, finding enough water for new wells is already a problem. “It’s just a horrible place to add more development,” said Teresa Moore, head of the local Valleys Planning Council.

Almond’s email touted a “covenant” she had negotiated with Cignal, limiting the developer to some 40 lots, versus the 100-plus that are theoretically possible.

But knowledgeable people with whom I spoke, including a former county planner, agreed that 40 lots was about all Cignal could build anyway, given steep slopes, septic, stormwater and other requirements. “I think 40 is really about the ‘carrying capacity’ of that property,” Moore said.

Political calculus and a denial 

Almond’s seeming change of heart has a simple explanation, alleges lawyer Howard H. “Howdy” Burns, a Dipping Pond Run resident and longtime activist for keeping the stream at trout quality. “Vicki’s running for county executive [in 2018], and she decided she needed the kind of money the big developers can raise,” he said.

Almond adamantly denies the charge. “I am not on the take. I have stood up to developers my whole career,” she said. Her original downzoning was “to force the developer to listen, and they did.”

The issue, no matter what the courts ruled, “wasn’t going to go away,” she said. Her upzoning to 40 lots was a compromise that “was a victory for the community and the developer,” she said.

Keys to the county 

Others don’t see it that way. “Developers have always had the keys to Baltimore County — it’s a pay-to-play system here,” said state Sen. Jim Brochin, who represents part of the county.

He said that he plans to announce his own bid for county executive, “and here’s my platform. I think Baltimore County is overdeveloped, and someone’s gotta say: ‘Enough.’ I believe 2018 should be a referendum here on overdevelopment. If you think places like Dipping Pond Run should remain intact, that’s my race.”

Perhaps the real tragedy of Dipping Pond Run and its trout is that it’s all too typical of a county where developers have set the political agenda for decades.

If trout in a stream is a powerful synecdoche, so is their absence.

Tom Horton has written about the Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of environmental studies at Salisbury University.