Members of Govans Presybterian Church participate in a groundbreaking. The tree will come down, but will be replaced with a garden.
Members of Govans Presybterian Church participate in a groundbreaking. The tree will come down, but will be replaced with a garden. (Justin Fenton)

Members of the Govans Presybterian Church followed a bagpipe player out of their stone sanctuary Sunday, then formed a semicircle around a tree on the edge of the church property whose time with the congregation was running short.

On the ground lay seven shovels to break ground on a $100,000 stormwater runoff project — essentially an empty pond that will collect rain and pollution from the nearby parking lot and allow it to be treated naturally. The tree will come down, but will be replaced with a garden.


“This will be one small thing we can do to make the earth cleaner and take care of this creation God have given us,” the Rev. Tom Harris said during a service marking the groundbreaking and St. Andrew’s Day.

Govans Presybterian is among hundreds of churches and places of worship in the city trying to deal with the storm water fee that was passed in 2012 by the state. Govans Presybterian was slapped with a $6,000 annual bill — a “big hit from our annual budget,” said Harris.

Bonnie Sorak, congregational outreach coordinator for Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, believes half of the city’s congregations have applied for a reduction in the fee.

“What we’ve been working to do is educate congregations that you can continue to pay the fee, or let us help you to find ways to institute practices to mitigate stormwater,” Sorak said.

Mark Cameron, manager of watershed planning and partnership for Baltimore’s Department of Public Works, said his agency has given about half a million dollars to the Chesapeake Bay Trust in recent years to support such projects.

“The department is doing tens of millions of dollars in the coming years for projects like this on public land, but most of the city is private property,” Cameron said. “We’re using the stormwater fee funding to support projects like this.”

Cameron said 20 such projects over the past four years have been funded.

Govans Presybterian worked with several organizations, including Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake and Blue Water Baltimore, to secure funding for the bioretention pond.

Properties with large pavement surfaces funnel a “tremendous amount of pollution, at a very rapid pace” into local streams, then into the Inner Harbor, and then the Chesapeake Bay, said Ashley Traut, of Blue Water Baltimore. That contributes to erosion, he said.

The church wanted to ensure that the space used for the runoff pond could still be used by members of the congregation. A stone barrier between the parking lot and the pond was “designed to be a space that can be used by children,” Harris said.

The project is expected to take 20 days to complete. It comes at an eventful time for Govans Presybterian: Next week, the church merges with Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church in Baltimore County. Brown Memorial Woodbrook will move into the city with Govans Presybterian.

For decades, Harris said, white residents have left the city and their churches have followed them. Brown “is reversing that trend.”

“This is the place they saw that they could really make a difference,” he told worshippers.