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Anne Arundel conservation group lauds county executive, Democratic council members’ environmental agenda; Republicans earn poor grades

County Executive Steuart Pittman at a forest conservation rally in 2019. He received an A grade from the Maryland League of Conservation Voters Monday for his environmental protection efforts since he was elected.
County Executive Steuart Pittman at a forest conservation rally in 2019. He received an A grade from the Maryland League of Conservation Voters Monday for his environmental protection efforts since he was elected. (Joshua McKerrow/Capital Gazette)

A chapter of a Maryland conservation group has given top marks to Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman and two Democratic County Council members for their environmental agenda since being elected. Their Republican counterparts received poor or failing grades.

Pittman, a Democrat who made environmental protection a pillar of his candidacy in 2018, received an A grade in the 2020 midterm report card published Monday by the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, a statewide non-partisan environmental advocacy organization.

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Pittman’s top marks were accredited to his administration’s efforts to pass a range of conservation bills on subjects including forest conservation, banning plastic foam, critical area rules, water and sewer connection charges and more. The report also credited him with organizing a transition team that prioritized environmental goals, creating a Citizens Environmental Commission and appointing officials to emphasize transparent development policies, among other efforts.

On the council, Chair Sarah Lacey, D-Jessup and Councilwoman Lisa Brannigan Rodvien, D-Annapolis, also received As. Their colleagues, Alison Pickard, D-Glen Burnie, and Andrew Pruski D-Gambrills, garnered Bs.

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The three Republicans on the council, Amanda Fiedler, R-Arnold, and Jessica Haire, R-Edgewater, received Ds. Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, was given an F.

Volke criticized the group for being partisan and said it ignored important environmental issues such as a bill by Haire to help fund the conversion of private septic systems to a public sewer system.

“It’s disappointing that the League of Conservation Voters’ partisanship blinds them from seeing the forest through the trees,” Volke said in a message. “Despite my voting in support of the most impactful and important legislation for forest conservation protection in Anne Arundel County history, they have discounted that support almost entirely...”

The council passed the county forest conservation law in November 2019. It is considered one of the strongest in the state, although some environmentalists criticize it for falling short of requiring a one-for-one replacement of trees cleared through development.

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“Nevertheless, I look forward to working on future efforts to protect our environment and the bay,” Volke said.

The report card covered December 2018 through October 2020. The officials were graded on a scale of A to F and were assigned scores based on a range of factors, including their voting record; bill support and sponsorship regardless of passage; public comments on conservation issues and responding to concerns of the environmental community; and the views of environmental leaders and organizations in the county.

Pittman’s election, and the council tipping to a Democratic majority in 2018, brought a conservation mindset that had been absent for some time, said Bob Gallagher, Maryland League of Conservation Voters Anne Arundel County representative. Gallagher is a former board member who now contributes to the drafting of the report card.

“He lived up to my expectations and has gone way beyond that,” Gallagher said of Pittman.

Pittman said he was honored to receive the high grade. He credited the workers in his administration and environmental advocates for their hard work over the past two years to enact his policy goals. The Maryland League of Conservation voters endorsed Pittman’s candidacy in 2018, something he had to work hard to receive, he said.

“All of these successes we’ve had are a result of people who work for me and advocates who pushed for progress,” he said.

Pittman attributed his environmental advocacy to his rural upbringing that helped instill an obligation “to leave the land better than we found it.”

“I feel that in my bones,” he said. “As humans, we have an obligation to protect the natural world.”

The grades come on the same day the County Council is set to introduce a general development plan, which includes a host of land use recommendations. It also features a natural resource protection ordinance, which Pittman called “our next big initiative.”

The legislation would require developers to identify natural resources on their land and their application would be graded based on how they intend to protect those resources.

The council also will consider a proposal to establish a solar farm at a closed county landfill in Glen Burnie.

Gallagher said he was excited about what the coming years could bring for continued environmental protection, such as Pittman’s efforts to transition the county’s fleet to electric vehicles and recharging county aquifers.

Still, some concerns do remain among the conservation community about extensive development in the northern part of the county and a seeming slow-down of expanding public water access among other issues, according to the report.

The report named Rodvien and Lacey as the leaders on a forest conservation bill that passed unanimously in November 2019. Pruski and Pickard were key in that effort as well, according to the report, but “stumbled” by supporting some amendments that the environmental group said weakened the legislation.

Despite eventually casting yes votes, Republican councilmembers were far less supportive of the bill and other environmental protection legislation, the report found. For instance, Haire only supported four of 18 conservation votes and Volke supported two of those measures.

Gallagher said he was disappointed by the Republicans’ poor grades because previous Republican county leaders have received good scores and garnering endorsements from the conservation league dating back to when it first started drafting midterm reports and issuing endorsements in 2009.

Pittman and the councilmembers were given a chance to talk about the issues and the grading process, Gallagher said. Volke was the only member who didn’t respond to the group’s invitation, Gallagher said.

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