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Westminster Council looks into environmental issues, zoning mistake

Environmental policy cropped up as a theme at the most recent Westminster Mayor and Common Council meeting. The city heard from a student environmental group at Westminster High School and councilwoman Ann Thomas Gilbert brought information bout the Sustainable Maryland certification program.

Westminster High School Environmental Action Club:

The Westminster High School Environmental Action Club sent two representatives to the Oct. 28 meeting with two requests to improve the health of the stream ecosystem on the Wakefield Valley property, the former golf course now owned by the city and home to walking trails.

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The club, which was formed this year, has been taking data from the stream since July to asses its health.

Their first suggestion was to stop cutting the grass in the 20 feet next to the stream. This helps build root systems that prevent erosion and provide shelter for fish. It also creates a buffer that filters out pollutants like the nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants that cause algal blooms in the Chesapeake Bay and can be deadly to other forms of native life. Reducing the grass cutting burden could also save the city money, club member Nicki James suggested.

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“We are the genesis, or the origin of the watershed, which means anything that we do in our streams, affects all the streams below us eventually into the bay,” club member Elsa Schoberg said.

Councilman Tony Chiavacci asked whether the action had to be all or nothing. In some areas, the trail runs closer than 20 feet to the stream and would make it impossible to have a 20-foot barrier all through the property.

Said James: “It’s just increasing [the buffer] as much as we can in the greatest area that we can.”

The students also asked for permission to work with the county tree commission to plant trees in the buffer.

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One way to approach this would be through a “forest banking” program. It would involve an initial investment by the city to plant the trees. But later, the trees could become a revenue source for the city from developers who are required to offset a certain percent of the trees cut down by a development project. In tree banking programs established elsewhere, developers purchase existing trees from a municipality. She also suggested that Westminster could look for grants to offset the initial cost of the tree planting.

Mayor Joe Dominick was particularly interested in the tree-planting idea, and said they would also benefit the stream life by creating more shade and improving the oxygen level in the ecosystem.

After the meeting, Schoberg said that they had been working on the issues for about a month and a half.

James said that they started the Environmental Action Club because they wanted to save the world, but part of their work has been finding the ways that they can do that at the local level. What inspired them to approach the council about Wakefield Valley was thinking about the little kids that play in the stream and the park, she said.

The council thanked the students for participating in the meeting.

“It’s great that you’re doing something rather than just talking about it,” Chiavacci said.

Townhome zoning

City officials also addressed a zoning issue where townhomes had been omitted from the list of acceptable structures in the definition for certain residential zones. The omission leaves the owners of existing townhomes in the lurch, unable to make improvements on their property.

Residents brought the issue to city officials. At the meeting, one woman shared her experience enlisting a contractor to make repairs to a porch on her home that is becoming dangerous to use. Because of the zoning issue, her contractor can’t work and she can’t begin the process of selling her home with a crumbling porch, she said.

Town Administrator Barbara Matthews, who is also serving as acting planning director after the departure of William Mackey, said the city has not determined how the omission came about.

“Our focus has been on how we move forward,” she said. They plan to introduce an ordinance at the next council meeting on Nov. 11. to “take the townhomes out of their nonconforming use status.”

Councilman Greg Pecoraro said that with winter coming and the construction season coming to end, he hoped they could work quickly to “hold these folks as harmless as possible."

Sustainable Maryland certification program

After returning from the Maryland Municipal League conference, Gilbert said she was struck by how many of the requirements for Sustainable Maryland certification that Westminster was already meeting.

She proposed that the city begin the certification process.

Sustainable Maryland is a collaborative effort between the Environmental Finance Center (EFC) at the University of Maryland and the Maryland Municipal League, according to their website, sustainablemaryland.com. Thirty-seven Maryland communities are certified and 76 are participating.

Dominick said that it seemed like that was right up his alley as long as they did their due diligence looking into the requirements.

Other council members agreed that environmental stewardship was a goal of the city, but asked that look into the amount of city staff time required for certification.

The council agreed to consider the topic again after Matthews had time to gather more information.

Other news

Director of Public Works Jeff Glass reported back on step testing that is taking place after a realignment project for Little Pipe Creek. Step testing may be used to look at the efficiency of a water source.

For an earlier phase of the test, they started pumping at a rate of 375,000 gallons per day. Presuming that goes well, they’ll move to pumping at a rate of 432,000 gallons per day.

Glass said that pre-Realignment Project, they were limited to 165,000 gallons per day. "So even if we are able to hit the smaller number, that’s an increase of 210,000 gallons per day. So no small task there,” he said.

Dominic recognized members of the city staff with a proclamation declaring November Municipal Government Works Month. “In an effort to educate citizens about municipal government and the importance of their participation, the City of Westminster is proud to promote municipal government awareness,” he read.

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