How Annapolis can protect itself against rising sea levels without losing its historic charm — that was the question on the minds of about 75 city officials, residents, climate activists and preservationists during an event Saturday on the city's downtown waterfront, which has experienced increased flooding during major storms in recent years.
"We're not looking at post-disaster. We're looking at pre-disaster. We don't want to wait until the point where we're waiting for (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) ... to give us a check," said Lisa Craig, chief of historic preservation for the city.
The event, "Weather It Together: Facing the Challenge," was part of a yearlong planning process, funded in part with a $106,000 grant from the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, to incorporate sea level vulnerability assessments of the city's waterfront properties into its existing Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan, Craig said.
Event planners also hope to raise awareness about the threat of global warming and rising sea levels to coastal communities around the world, and the things that Annapolis and its residents can do to protect public spaces and private homes.
"I'm so proud of our city, because we're way ahead of everyone else," said Alderman Ross Arnett, the who represents Ward 8, including most of Eastport. "But we've got to get hopping, because it's going to be here before we know it."
The event put local residents in the same room with experts in sea level rise and historic preservation as well as city officials knowledgeable about local regulations and ordinances that control how historic properties in Annapolis can be retrofitted or renovated.
Residents also connected with climate advocates from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who have mapped out local flood plains and helped cities protect against flooding.
Dianne Nowak-Waring, 66, who owns a home on South Creek — off the West River — said sea level rise is "a major issue for everyone who lives around the bay, not just in the Historic District" of Annapolis.
"I see it daily, and I need to do something about it," she said.
When she bought her home, a former farmhouse, in 1980, "sea level rise wasn't a topic of conversation," she said. Still, she and her husband decided to keep most of the home's living space on the second floor. Now, Nowak-Waring said, she's not sure that's high enough.
Doug Smith, president of the Annapolis Partnership, a nonprofit that advocates for Main Street businesses, said there is a "growing sense of urgency" among business owners to find a solution to a problem that affects them all: standing water in the downtown area whenever the tides, heavy rain or storms bring the bay above the city's existing sea walls.
"We don't want to lose our historic structures, because that's what draws people here," he said.
During earlier phases of the review process, the city had experts produce a range of reports on local sea level rise — on the economic impact, what homeowners can do and other topics. On Saturday, those experts gave short presentations, and then split into break-out sessions in which residents could ask more detailed questions.
Attendees talked about innovative ways to protect the city — like elevating waterfront properties, or realigning storm drainage — that wouldn't result in Annapolis being lifted awkwardly onto "stilts" or cut off from its waterfront by giant levees.
Matt Jacobs, a local Realtor whose family owns the Annapolis Boat Show, said he has seen "a lot of negative impacts" of sea level rise in recent years, and he wanted to be a part of the solution.
"It's not just historic preservation, it's economic preservation and social preservation," he said.
While such conversations are occurring across the country, some communities don't accept the concept of sea level rise or climate change, or don't believe it would affect them. Katharine Burgess, director of urban resilience for the national Urban Land Institute, an event sponsor, said Annapolis is different.
"It's clear how engaged people here are and how ready they are to think about solutions," she said.
Craig said it's up to local communities to figure out the best path forward for them, without applying a one-size-fits-all approach designed for bigger cities.
"There are a hell of a lot more small towns than there are big cities on the coastline," she said. "We need to figure out how to crack this nut."firstname.lastname@example.org