As Savidge environmental agenda comes to fruition in Annapolis, developers balk

Danielle Ohl
Contact Reporterdohl@capgaznews.com

A spate of environmental legislation, initiated by Alderman Rob Savidge and backed by conservancy groups, will likely dominate City Council meetings this fall. But the council could be in for a fight, as developers have called Savidge’s agenda extreme.

There are five Savidge-led bills, all with several co-sponsors, working through the legislative process. One restricts development where schools are over-capacity. Another bans polystyrene containers in the city. A resolution supports an application to make Annapolis waterways no-discharge zones.

The newest bills take on deforestation and stormwater runoff, two issues key to the city’s federally mandated pollution reduction goals.

A “no-net loss” bill would eliminate something called a “reforestation credit.” The code establishes a conservation threshold. If a developer retains acres of forest under the conservation threshold, those acres can be subtracted from the number that must be replaced. The ordinance is up for public hearing, and if passed, would affect six projects in the city, including the controversial Village at Providence Point.

Environmental activists have derided the credit since the Forest Conservation Act overhaul in 2017, but developers point to an already steep premium that exists on knocking down Annapolis trees.

Another resolution, which seeks to reinforce an interpretation of existing code, instructs city staff to enforce 100 percent stormwater treatment on redevelopment and 150 percent on new developments. The council referred the resolution to a public hearing and several committees last week.

City stormwater engineer Matt Waters said staff will likely have to adhere to the 100 and 150 percent requirements, as the city cannot apply different standards to different sites. The legislation will help with federally mandated reductions of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

“I can definitely say that it will increase the requirements, so (development) may be more difficult,” Waters said, “but it will definitely clean up the bay and help us meet our ... goals.”

Representatives from five different environmental groups showed up to support the resolution during the council meeting. Savidge, D-Ward 7, has promised an ordinance along the same lines. But developers have said the legislation is not feasible.

“It furthers this notion … that the city of Annapolis is an extremely untransparent place to do business, whether it’s ambiguity in the code or ambiguity in new pieces of legislation,” said Alex Kopicki of Solstice Partners, a developer with several projects in the city. “Here we are talking about the bike lane in an exhaustive fashion, but you’re about to potentially impose this, what I believe to be the most stringent stormwater regulations in the country.”

Pollutants come from a number of sources in an urban environment — discharge of treated sewage, exhaust from cars and factories, fertilizer in landscaping and lawns — but Savidge sees development as the biggest culprit degrading water quality in Annapolis. He’s been an environmentalist since growing up in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, and said he has seen the influence developers have on city processes from serving as an environmental compliance inspector.

“The city manager is saying I’m not going to allow staff to exercise discretion under the law because we don’t want to be sued for being arbitrary and capricious,” he said. “Why isn’t the city afraid of the public?”

Environmental commission chair Diane Butler echoed this sentiment — and said the measures aren’t just about the environment.

“We just have a ton of examples of how developers don't want to follow environmental laws and how the city really gets pushed around,” she wrote in a text message. “We see developers make promises to win approval that they never intend to keep.”

Both the no-net loss bill and stormwater resolution would contribute toward reducing nutrient runoff, which benefits “total maximum daily load” limits, or the amount of pollution the city can allow into waterways daily. The city has committed to treating 20 percent of its impervious surfaces by 2025.

Separately, a 2006 agreement with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources requires the city to increase tree canopy 50 percent by 2036.

Savidge’s bills would apply to projects underway in one form or another. The no-net loss requirement will apply to projects without a preliminary forest conservation plan. The stormwater requirement would apply to sites without approved stormwater management plans.

“With all my legislation I’m trying to compromise in the sense that developers, of course, don’t want any of this legislation to apply to things in the pipeline,” he said.

But developers don’t see compromise. Alan Hyatt, an attorney for several city developers, called Savidge “dangerous” and an opponent of growth. Hyatt recently sued the city on behalf of developers for a new public meeting law they considered ambiguous and overly broad.

“His legislation is consistently narrow and focused on environmental matters and I think he needs to have a broader approach,” Hyatt said. “Nobody objects to improving the environment. No one, including developers, objects to legislation that benefits the environment.”

Hyatt said Savidge is focusing on the environmental section of the Annapolis 2009 Comprehensive Plan, which also calls for economic growth, greater employment initiatives and diverse housing options.

Kopicki this summer finished months of mediation over the Lofts at Eastport Landing, agreeing to reduce the size of the mixed residential and commercial development. His group revised stormwater management plans based on city and resident feedback, but should the new resolution pass, Kopicki said he’s unsure where the project stands.

“This feels so disingenuous,” he said. “It’s just, from my perspective, bad faith and bad dealings and it’s just directed right at our project.”

Stormwater mitigation in Annapolis can be difficult and costly, he said, especially when dealing with older structures on small plots of land. If developers don’t want to lose parking access, they must often resort to digging up the ground and installing large, concrete cisterns, which are “wildly expensive,” Kopicki said.

Gerald Winegrad, a former legislator and longtime environmental advocate, pushed back on the idea that developers will be priced out of Annapolis. Paying to protect the environment is just like paying impact fees to lessen effects on schools, public safety services and highways, he said.

“It should be on anyone who destroys the trees to pay to protect them,” Winegrad said. “It can be done. … It’s a reasonable thing.”

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