Friday, June 10, 2022

Paving Perryman Peninsula

 When William Donald Schaefer was Governor he wanted to empower the State to override local government zoning it was necessary to keep development out of non suitable areas. His successor Parris Glendening called it Smart Growth  but neither was able to give the State the power  to override local zoning. What passed were "7 visions" and the Economic Growth, Resource Protection and Planning Act of 1992. Local government stayed in charge and the State was only allowed to "guide" development with planning assistance materials and by judiciously limiting its own investments to suitable areas.

From the Protect Perryman website

Now 30 years later, we know that the voluntary approach was not especially effective. A blatant example how parochial local zoning can be in conflict with those protective visions is Perryman. Imagine a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the waters of the Bush River and the Chesapeake Bay that has been in large part taken by Aberdeen Proving Ground,  that has a rich agricultural history and equally rich soils and forests. 

And then imagine a company that amasses 711 acres of such picturesque lands to build five giant warehouses of over one million square feet each in the middle of this still largely rural paradise. Just to get the picture: These 5.2 million square feet of flat roofed warehouses alone seal 114 acres of land. Add loading docks, driveways and parking spaces for 6000 tractor trailers and cars and almost all 7,000 acres of land will be affected, not to say ruined. Anybody who has seen warehouses from above, say,approaching BWI in a plane knows how charming the are.

Maryland's largest warehouses: The last crop

The development would forever seal the soil, and create an urban heat island that is more than 1/3 the land area of Bel Air, where Harford County's government is seated. According to the project engineer, 10% of the 711 acres are in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, Designated as "Limited Development Area", and "Resource Conservation Area", nearly a full third is located in the Water Source Protection District of the Perryman well field and 116 acres are forest with 115 specimen trees.  (attempts are made to keep some trees between the warehouses).

The county council voted recently 7:0 to put a moratorium on the development but the Republican Executive coolly vetoed the unanimous council vote and the council then cut tail and didn't override the veto. There is probably hardly a planner or regular Marylander who thinks that paving this much open space on low-wage low-workforce warehouses with their ensuing truck congestion, air and water pollution and massive amounts of dirty run-off is a really splendid idea or that the Perryman peninsula is the best place to build warehouses, even if they are in high demand. Especially since Perryman has a comparatively higher segment of black residents (10% above County average). But this isn't what matters here. Instead, it is all about private property rights, zoning and a short-lived windfall on taxes.  What also matters is jurisdictional competition. Harford County has more residents than businesses. Baltimore County with its about 4000 acres of brownfields at what used to be Sparrows Point and its re-use of that polluted land for warehouses with excellent highway connections is stimulating a competing jurisdiction.Trying to dig off the water "upstream" on I-95 in the fashion how Ethiopia cuts off Nile water going to Egypt apparently a temptation. 

1996 land use plan: Mostly "light industrial"

Ok, admittedly, everyone ordering stuff online or buying it in big box stores is ultimately responsible for the inordinate demand on warehouse space. Chesapeake Real Estate Group (CREG) and its principal, Jim Lighthizer is just offering what the market wants. His business does so in Harford County, in Baltimore County, in Anne Arundel County and elsewhere, often on land that was previously undeveloped, at times even on a brownfield. Suitable land for 1 million square foot warehouses isn't exactly in ample supply. On Perryman he is eyeing land that is zoned "light industrial" and a declared Enterprise Zone. Forest stand delineation plans, site plans and traffic impact studies have been already prepared and generally accepted by the County. 

CREG still has to sign the contract for the land with the Mitchell family, a farm business in Perryman with a long and proud history going back over more than a 100 years, to a time before the 69,000 acre Proving Ground began gobbling up farmland in 1917. Mitchell Brothers included first tomato canning and later award winning corn production and canning as well as a factory for farm equipment. In 1994, when Schaefer's Growth Act  became law, the family still farmed over 2000 acres, some on leased land.  In 1996 the County converted the land from agricultural (1982) and residential (1989)  to "light industrial" in its County Master Land Use Plan.

Mitchell's corn: Father and son
(Harford County Historic Society undated)

In many ways, the Mitchell family traces the story of much of Maryland's open spaces: The last crop is development. The Mitchells started this process already over 20 years ago when they sold a swath of land to Rite Aid which constructed a giant warehouse on farmland, a thorn in the eye of residents ever since. But can the Mitchells or James Lighthizer be blamed for doing what has been going on for decades on land that has been envisioned for commercial use since the 1950s?  This is where County goals and larger picture State or national environmental goals collide. Former Governor O'Malley used to observe that since 1972 Maryland has developed more land that it had developed  in its entire history up to 1972.  Is now the time to put a stop to this land consumption? Well, many Perryman residents sure think so.

Seeing that neither the County Executive nor the council nor the current Governor would help them fend off the giant development  concerned Perryman residents filed a lawsuit this week, a desperate attempt of stopping the warehouses through the courts. The arguments they put forth involve mostly the insufficiency of the single "rural" exit road to carry the expected  truck and passenger vehicle traffic without jeopardizing existing residents. They also claim a "private nuisance because it is an intentional
and unreasonable legal cause of a substantial interference and invasion to Plaintiffs' interests in the use and enjoyment of their land." The plaintiffs further argue that zoning is supposed to protect the health and welfare of residents and that a "freight terminal" should not be allowed under the zoning category "light industrial". (The traffic impact study predicts 125 trucks per hour for the morning "peak" hour and 172 trucks in the pm peak in addition to 291 and 400 cars, respectively). The suit filed in the Anne Arundel Circuit Court (the business seat of CREG) seeks "a preliminary injunction and permanent injunctive relief to prevent a nuisance and private nuisance that the Freight Terminal will indisputably cause". The suit names the Mitchell business, CREG, the project engineer, and Harford County as defendants. The suit does not go into the details of the traffic impact study, the forest delineation or any other engineered components that were submitted to the County.

Anti warehouse protest (Sun photo 2021)

This Court’s intervention is required to prevent the pollution, destruction, and substantial and unreasonable impairment of the air, water, and other natural and civic resources of the Perryman Peninsula. (from the complaint)

A December community meeting with some 300 irate Perryman residents opposed to the development yielded those opposing statements as the BBJ reported

"I am begging you to listen to the community. We hate this plan. We don't want it." (Perryman resident)

"We have been in touch with the entire county administration. Every single one said this is exactly what the property is zoned for and exactly what we wanted. We’ve been waiting for this and we like it. This is exactly what we want." (CREG CEO Lighhizer)
Both sides have their webpages. (Perryman Improvement  and Protect Perryman). Even the County has a designated space for the project, right next to the County's Green Infrastructure Plan. The protectors fight an uphill battle given that the dispute over Perryman's warehouse zoning goes back decades in which Harford County government never budged on its ill advised warehouse zoning, no matter how many County residents had different ideas and engaged in a then popular "visual preference" planning process in which they envisioned a concept which bifurcated the non Proving Ground part of the peninsula along the rail line with protected farmland, "mixed use" development on one side and warehouses on the other. The ten Executive Harkins envisioned technology to come: 
Already existing warehouse on Perryman (Archplan 2002)

"We have the potential, with Aberdeen Proving Ground and the center of technology it has become, to be another Patuxent Naval Air Station," (James Harkins, Harford County Executive in 1991)
At that time statements from MDOT indicated that the State would not fund the necessary highway improvements. I toured the peninsula in 2002 in an effort to support then Harford Planning Director Kocy in working out details for a vision residents at worked out a year earlier in a year long process. But the large community based planning effort of 2001 went nowhere and the proposed warehouse plan is as far from Harkin's technology park dream as the proposed tree remnants between the warehouses are from pristine forests.
Google satellite of Perryman peninsula: Not exactly next to I-95

One would expect that two decades of learning about climate change, traffic congestion, Chesapeake water quality issues and ongoing regional air quality problems combined with environmental justice would have taught Harford County planners a lesson. In the year 2022 everyone knows with renewed urgency, how important it is to keep fertile soils form being sealed, how soil captures carbon, recharges groundwater and helps keeping some food production local keeping local farmers farming. But no, the County administration stick to its age old land use designations. Warehouses are a hotter commodity than ever and so they are willingly sacrificing one of the best landscapes they have to offer, come hell or high water. (Both are pretty much ensured).

Can a court make the Titanic turn? Can a court argue that environmental stewardship can trump zoning? That thousands of citizens should be able to have a voice in addition to private property owners? That the common good can override private interest? That private land ownership has  not only rights but also responsibilities.

Scenic Perryman: (ArchPlan 2002)

"There is more than a mere prayer for declaratory relief in the complaint" the complaint states in the declaratory section. Miracles can happen, but they are usually overruled in the next higher court. But once in a while, the environment wins, for example when prolonged court battles killed the Keystone pipeline project. But don't hold your breath. Landscapes, trees and soils still don't have a lobby, even in Maryland, a state that prides itself of its "smart growth" and environmental record. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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