The Roland Park Civic League is concerned about a new storm water management system to address erosion in the woods behind Roland Park Country School.
The school is installing a buried piping system to control runoff in the school's so-called "backwoods," and to cut down 29 dead and dying trees as part of the process, according to school spokesman Nancy Mugele.
According to league President Chris McSherry, school officials sent a letter in March to about 100 residents who live nearby, along the west side of Deepdene Road, announcing plans to install a new system. But the letter did not give details , and the number of trees felled before Memorial Day, some of them as old as 50 years, was higher than residents and the league expected, McSherry said.
"None of us understood the number of trees that were going to be taken down," she said.
There is also concern about how the storm water management process will work and whether additional water being streamed toward the edge of the school's property will harm what one resident, who asked not to be identified, called "an already fragile retaining wall" in the area, among other environmental issues.
McSherry too described the wall as "crumbling." She said the league is happy that the storm water management system is being installed, but that school officials "didn't tell us how much clearing they were going to do," including removing underbrush and some smaller trees, too.
"They probably removed a total of 100 trees when you include the smaller ones," McSherry said. "Obviously, people were upset," she said, adding that some dead and dying trees closer to the road have not been cut down yet.
The issue was discussed at the June 4 meeting of the civic league, where Duncan Booth, director of facilities for the school, and Mugele gave a presentation at the league's request about the work being done.
McSherry said there have been persistent complaints about water streaming down a hillside on the campus and into Deepdene Road, spurred by construction on campus in recent years. The erosion has resulted in four trees falling on residents' cars in the past five years, she said.
Several residents on Deepdene did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Mugele said an earlier storm water management plan was in place when Roland Park Country's new middle school was built in 2001 with a science wing facing Deepdene — "and at the time, there weren't issues," she said.
The school also built a new athletic complex in 2008.
School officials became aware of erosion issues in the 5-acre wooded area over time and "we began to address those issues really seriously four years ago," leading to the new system, which is expected to cost $450,000, Mugele said.
She said a lot of rain water is coming off a service road on campus and that part of the storm water management plan calls for building a curb along the service road, which runs parallel to Deepdene Road.
In October 2012, school officials met with residents and presented the new plan, which had three components — cutting down trees; installing the pipes, which range from 48 to 24 inches in diameter, and putting in place a reforestation plan, Mugele said.
McSherry said the school has known for more than 12 years that there was an erosion problem, but didn't start to address it until the trees fell and several victims sought financial compensation for damages.
The meeting in 2012 was only with those residents and no plans were presented, McSherry said.
Mugele disputed that, saying four families expressed in the school's plans and were invited to the school to see the plans. Only one of the people at that meeting was a victim of tree damage, Mugele said.
The city, which owns a forest conservation easement on the site in perpetuity, had to approve the project, and approval of the first two components was finalized in March. The school sent a letter to residents in May, alerting them that the work was starting, Mugele said.
"We are working through the process as we need to with the (city) Office of Sustainability," Mugele said. The city has not approved a reforestation plan yet, but, "We didn't have to have the reforestation plan approved before we started work," she said. "The tree removal and piping was not contingent on reforestation plans."
Planning officials in the Office of Sustainability, who are overseeing the project, confirmed that work was allowed to start before a reforestation plan was in place, and said final alignment of the pipes was designed with the oversight of the city Department of Public Works. Baltimore City and other jurisdictions in Maryland are responsible for enforcing the state Forest Conservation Act.
Mugele said that the Davey Tree company did a survey for the school to identify trees that should be cut down, based on the criteria that they were either dead, dying or unlikely to survive the construction work.
"We didn't just go chop down a bunch of trees without a very thoughtful process," Mugele said. "We really thought we had talked to the interested parties" in October 2012, she said.
McSherry said work in a forest conservation easement should not have started until a reforestation plan was approved.
The city just dropped the ball on that step," McSherry said. "The school still doesn't have a reforestation plan, so the community is very
concerned about what will happen with that land when the construction is finished."
The school did not seek the civic league's blessing because "the project was not large enough to require approval by the civic league," Mugele said. "But I have to say, it was never our intent not to inform our neighbors."
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She stressed that the school is concerned about protecting the local tree canopy and that when BGE cut down some trees along Deepdene Road last year, the school and the civic league joined forces to plant several new tress in their place.
School officials are as concerned about erosion as residents are, because, "This backwoods is a classroom," Mugele said. She said the wooded area — one of the few urban woodlands left in the city — includes a gazebo and stream, and that students use the woods in their studies of geography, geology and ecology, and as a setting to write and paint.
"We use it a lot. We definitely want to retain and restore it," Mugele said, adding that school officials plan to present reforestation plans publicly this summer. The pipes should be installed by mid-August and the reforestation should start in the fall, she said. The school must plant at least 34 new trees, in accordance with the city-mandated baseline of 100 trees per acre, she said.
The city prefers oak trees "to get the canopy back to where it was," but oaks take longer to grow than some other trees, Mugele said.
The city did a study to make sure that the school wouldn't be adding more water to the area, Mugele said.