Patuxent commission shakeup follows development debates | Policy & Politics

Fred Tutman and Barbara Sollner-Webb

Barbara Sollner-Webb and Fred Tutman, shown here with a water sample taken at the Queen Anne Natural Area on Maryland’s Patuxent River, were removed from the state’s Patuxent River Commission. 

Back in 1980, Maryland lawmakers had become so concerned about the declining health of the Patuxent River that they created a commission to help rescue it. The legislature charged the panel with keeping tabs on state and local efforts to restore the 110-mile-long waterway from the pollution clouding its water, killing its grasses and depleting its crabs and fish.

Four decades later, the Patuxent is still ailing. Now, river advocates say, the commission itself needs rescuing after Gov. Larry Hogan without warning removed its two longest serving members, including Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman, who had pressed the panel to oppose development projects that the two believed would worsen water quality.

Tutman, a commission member for 23 years, and Barbara Sollner-Webb, a civic activist with 18 years on the panel, received letters from Hogan in late November thanking them for their service and indirectly informing them they had been replaced.

Their ouster comes after they sparred with the secretary and staff of the Maryland Department of Planning while trying to get the commission to take stands on land use decisions affecting the river.

“This is a pretty clumsy move to throw a couple of activists off a commission that‘s frankly supposed to be looking at these issues,” Tutman said.

A spokesman for the planning department, which provides staff support for the 34-member commission, said Planning Secretary Robert McCord chose not to recommend their reappointment because he wanted “new perspectives” on the panel. Agency spokesman David Buck did not elaborate.

In all, Hogan replaced five incumbents on the commission and filled vacancies left by two members who did not seek reappointment. But Sollner-Webb said that by removing the panel’s most outspoken advocates for the environment, the administration is “making clear to other members if you speak out, you’re going to be axed.”

Tutman said that his removal from the commission is particularly puzzling, because the riverkeeper organization he runs works to protect and restore the Patuxent and conducts cleanups and other volunteer activities intended to promote public awareness and stewardship. The commission, in fact, had voted years ago to endorse the creation of the organization, he noted.

The shakeup came in the wake of efforts by Tutman and Sollner-Webb to have the commission weigh in on a pair of controversial development projects in Howard County. It is the state’s second-fastest growing county, having experienced a nearly 16% population increase since 2010.

A changing river

Growth is an existential issue for the Patuxent, which drains parts of seven Maryland counties. The 900-square-mile watershed was once overwhelmingly farmland. Now, homes and commercial development cover an increasing share of the landscape, with discharges from 36 wastewater treatment plants.

The commission was formed in part to iron out differences among the seven counties. In the late 1970s, the rural Southern Maryland counties along the lower river sued the state and suburbanizing counties upriver, arguing they were not doing enough to control pollution. The lawsuit led to a “charrette,” or summit, at which all agreed to work together for the river’s benefit.

In 1980, the General Assembly passed the Patuxent Watershed Act, which created the commission and directed it to come up with a plan to guide state and local policies and regulatory decisions in the watershed. Originally, the panel had 11 members, including a seat for each of the seven counties but, in 1995, lawmakers expanded membership to 34 and broadened its duties.

Nutrient and sediment pollution have declined significantly since then in the upper half of the river, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The improvements have slowed in recent years, though, and much of the river remains biologically impaired. Its lower, tidal portion earned a D-minus last year on an ecological health report card from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Patuxent River at Jug Bay, MD

Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary on the Patuxent River in Prince George’s County, MD, encompasses 1,500 acres of wetlands, forests, meadows and fields. Though significant amounts of land have been preserved along the river, growth pressures continue throughout much of the watershed. 

In 2018, Tutman and Sollner-Webb voiced concerns about a 35-home subdivision proposed in historic Savage on the Little Patuxent River, one of two chief tributaries to the main river. The project depended on Howard County agreeing to swap a chunk of parkland for another parcel owned by the developer. Critics complained the development would increase runoff to the river. They also noted that the county bought the parkland with federal money and was part of a “targeted ecological area” identified as a conservation priority by the state Department of Natural Resources.

But Planning Secretary McCord blocked the commission writing to Howard officials. He informed panel members that they lacked the legal authority to comment on private development projects, and he produced an unsigned opinion to that effect from the department’s chief counsel.

Buck, the state planning spokesman, said McCord only intervened after hearing from a Howard County official.  In a memo, McCord warned commission members that getting involved in local land use conflicts threatened to alienate county and municipal officials, who’d stop participating in the panel’s other work.

Unwilling to give up, Tutman and Sollner-Webb got sympathetic legislators to appeal to Attorney General Brian Frosh. His office responded with an unofficial opinion that reversed the earlier one and declared the commission was within its rights to comment on development projects.

The pair hit another hurdle last year when they tried to get the commission to speak out about a 1,440-unit senior living complex proposed on 62 acres in the upper reaches of the Middle Patuxent, the main river’s other branch in Howard County.

The project, Erickson at Limestone Valley, also involved swapping land that had previously been put off limits from development under the state’s agricultural land preservation program.

“It is the camel’s nose under the tent,” Sollner-Webb said of the land swap. Tutman also argued it would further jeopardize water quality in a once-rural area that is experiencing intense development. He noted that a service station had been built over the river’s headwaters near the Erickson project.

When Sollner-Webb and Tutman moved to oppose the project, most commission members who represent government agencies — and who hold nearly two-thirds of the seats — abstained. A bare majority of the other members wanted to oppose the project, but the state planning staff declared that the abstentions counted as “no” votes, killing the motion.

Seeking another way to register the commission’s concerns, Sollner-Webb then proposed that it endorse the Erickson project. With most government representatives again abstaining, that motion also failed. Sollner-Webb took that as a backhanded victory, showing that the commission did not support the project. The Howard County Zoning Board approved the project nonetheless in November.

Surprising shakeup

About the same time, Tutman and Sollner-Webb learned to their that dismay they had been replaced. Only a few months earlier, a state planning staffer had emailed all of the Patuxent River Commission members whose terms were expiring, asking if they wished to be reappointed.

Michael Leszcz, chairman of the commission, said he was surprised by the membership shakeup.

“It’s [the governor’s] prerogative to choose who he wants for the commission,” said Leszcz, who holds a seat designated for the city of Laurel. But Leszcz added, “This is the first time it’s been handled like this.”

Chris Perry, the commission’s vice chairman and an environmental consultant — who was reappointed — likewise said he was surprised. Tutman and Sollner-Webb were “by far the most active and engaged [members of] the commission,” he said, “so it’s a big loss not to have them anymore.”

Richard E. Hall, secretary of planning under the previous administration of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, said he was saddened but not surprised by the shakeup at the commission. He served as staff to the river commission for more than a decade, he said, and he couldn’t recall the panel ever being told it couldn’t comment on an issue that concerned the river.

“The Patuxent … was always seen as Maryland’s proving ground for the Chesapeake Bay Program,” he said. The federal-multistate Bay restoration effort was formally launched a few years after the Patuxent cleanup agreement and has focused on similar problems and remedies.

In the late 1990s, Maryland adopted a Smart Growth law aimed at reining in suburban sprawl and the environmental harms it causes. But Hall said the state’s commitment to that has withered in recent years, contending in a Facebook post that “the Hogan administration has taken MD backwards on growth policy big time.”

Hogan, a Republican who headed a real estate development firm before being elected governor in 2014, had criticized his predecessor’s growth management policies. He had vowed to ease state oversight of land use decisions, saying they belonged in the hands of local officials.

To some, the shakeup on the commission is emblematic of the Patuxent’s continuing woes and the political sensitivity of trying to rein in development.

Ralph Eshelman, a historian and author from Southern Maryland who’s working on a book about the river, noted that the Patuxent is the only river in the state with its own advisory commission. At times it seemed to him the panel was more interested in promoting tree plantings, litter cleanups and other feel-good events without tackling the river’s underlying problems.

Now, he said, it’s “being handcuffed. They [state officials] are deliberately getting rid of people who are trying to do a good job. They’re deliberately getting people on board who don’t give a crap.”

Hogan’s new appointments to the commission include Margaret Everson, a former top Interior Department official and briefly acting National Park Service director under the Trump administration. Hogan had previously appointed two others to the board of the Maryland Environmental Service. One of them, Morgan Hall, Jr., is described on the MES website as a lifelong Baltimore citizen who works at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County — neither location is in the Patuxent watershed.

State planning spokesman Buck said there’s no requirement that Patuxent commission members live in the watershed. He called all the governor’s appointments “assets” to the commission.

Calls for reform

Sollner-Webb, an emeritus professor at Johns Hopkins, is president of the West Laurel Civic Association and a board member of the Prince George’s County chapter of the Sierra Club. She said the commission has done some good in the past by putting pressure on local and state agencies to improve sediment runoff controls at constructions sites.

Lately, though, she said she’s convinced that the state planning department doesn’t share the mission of the commission.

“The Department of Planning is planning for future growth,” she said. “Using the river to allow for more development is not why the commission was set up. It was to preserve the river as a natural treasure.”

Gary Hodge, a former director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland who served on the panel for its first 14 years, said it’s time for lawmakers to step in again. He recalled that former state Sen. Bernie Fowler, who was hailed as the “heart and soul” of the Patuxent when he died in December, had spent more than three decades on the commission.

“The way the river goes, the Bay’s going to go the same way,” Fowler had warned as early as 1969. He famously vowed to “never, never, never give up” trying to rescue the Patuxent and the Bay. But in the past decade, his belief in progress waned. In a 2014 interview, he said the commission had become unworkable since lawmakers had expanded its membership, and the river was still in dire shape.

“After 45 years of working very hard, the Patuxent River today [2014] is in worse shape than it was when I started back in 1969,” Fowler said. He quit the commission not long after that.

“The fundamental purpose of the commission is not to meet every month and eat sandwiches and have nice conversation,” Hodge said. “The purpose … is to protect the river. If that goal isn’t being achieved, the people who have a stake in its health ought to be able to refocus the commission on its charge and structure its function and bylaws in a way it can fulfill its mission. Otherwise, it ought to sunset.”

State Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, has introduced legislation in the General Assembly that will at least ensure that Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman has a seat on the commission. “I thought it was silly to remove him just because he’s outspoken,” Pinsky said. “He wants a clean river, just like a lot of people do. So, we’re going to try to remedy the situation.”

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