Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Maryland Counties Propose New Agency to Combat Climate Impacts

The quasi-government agency would be able to seek grants, issue bonds and even levy fees to carry out projects that would protect life and property from the increasing number of storms and heat waves across the state.

(TNS) — In this otherwise idyllic stretch of Charles County, Md., Theresa Deminne’s yard is full of what she calls the circles of hell.

There’s the pit, 12 feet deep, that appeared during heavy rains in summer 2020 and is slowly swallowing a ring of plastic orange fencing. Nearby, a newer sinkhole is already nearly as deep. A dip in the lawn where the grass is greener suggests another could form, not far from the one that started to swallow the driveway. That one is patched up, for now.

This is what happens when failing infrastructure, in this case an underground drain pipe, meets our weather’s new normal: stronger storms and more intense rainfall. Similar problems are appearing across this fast-growing Southern Maryland county.

That leaves the community confronting a difficult, increasingly common question in the age of climate change: How can it afford the expensive and complicated task of adapting to new weather extremes when it also can’t afford not to?

Charles County is among a handful of Maryland jurisdictions trying a new answer: a resilience authority. Unique to Maryland, the quasi-government agency can seek grants, issue bonds and even levy fees to carry out projects that would otherwise compete with schools or health or safety for public funds.

The experiment in residents’ willingness to support — if not directly pay for — projects that will protect life and property from storms and heat waves is being discussed around the state. An authority created by Anne Arundel County and the city of Annapolis is tackling a $56 million problem, the redevelopment of the capital’s often-flooded City Dock. Montgomery County leaders plan to create one to address challenges there. Baltimore City Council leaders will soon propose creating a resilience authority as part of environmental justice efforts.

While extreme storms have laid bare the need for action, another factor has experts around the country looking to Maryland’s resilience authorities as a prototype. Bond rating agencies have indicated that inaction could make governments less trustworthy borrowers, which would make it more expensive for municipalities to take on debt for other projects. Bond rating agencies have already cited Charles County’s efforts on climate resiliency in reaffirming its top bond rating.

But building resilience isn’t easy, even with an authority. For instance, Charles has been unable to fix broken drainage systems thus far because it doesn’t own them. In as many as 100 neighborhoods, failing stormwater systems are property of the developers who built subdivisions and left, or of community associations that, in some cases, are defunct.

Deminne is frustrated. She’s been pushing for years for the county to confront the issue.

“Now, it’s come home to roost,” she said.

The first task for Charles’ resilience authority: buy up systems like the one beneath Deminne’s yard, then pay to fix them.

A New Strategy

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2020 to allow local governments to create resilience authorities. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy’s Center for Global Sustainability spent months ahead of the legislative push working with several governments, including Charles’, exploring what the agencies could accomplish.

They looked at the ways different governments approach investment in the sorts of infrastructure that climate change threatens, and found that more are making it a priority.

Some, like Montgomery County and the state of Connecticut, use a “green bank” to help residents and businesses finance investment in green energy. Leaders are moving such programs toward supporting investments that prevent flooding and otherwise improving climate resiliency. Miami-Dade County, Florida, is spending a $400 million bond on resilience projects.

The Maryland researchers came up with the concept of an independent body, so it doesn’t compete within the county for funding, and can go after grants and other alternative sources of money. Unlike debt used to pay for schools or roads, any bonds that resilience authorities sell won’t count toward government limits on borrowing, said Joanne Throwe, a senior fellow at the sustainability center and key architect of the initiative.

“You often see important projects prioritized one year and pushed off for future years,” said Throwe, also a former deputy state natural resources secretary. “This will allow for the governments to take on projects they might not have funded before.”

In pushing for the legislation, Democratic Sen. Sarah Elfreth of Annapolis pointed to nearly two months’ worth of nuisance flooding days in the capital each year and extreme floods occurring about every other year. She said resilience authorities could help communities prepare.

“These are almost prohibitively expensive projects across the state,” Elfreth told a Senate committee. “But we know they are needed to preserve our communities, our historic structures, our culture, our homes, our small businesses.”

‘Like A Giant Swimming Pool’

Deminne and her husband moved 28 years ago to a house on a hill in Hughesville and raised three children. The steep incline that led to their quiet street made for good sledding.

Signs of trouble appeared about five years ago. A shallow hole appeared after rain, although a load of dirt and gravel seemed to solve the problem.

But in August 2020, Tropical Storm Isaias dropped as much as 9 inches of rain on parts of Southern Maryland. Suddenly, it became evident their yard was like the bottom of a bowl. The sides extended around their neighborhood and up to a county park, where horses trot and crops grow.

There was so much runoff, the street looked like a river, Deminne recalled. The torrent of water flowing from beneath her yard to a nearby stream was so laden with dirt and sediment, she and her husband called it “the chocolate milk machine.”

Then there are the holes left behind. The largest, with the slumping orange fencing around it, is just steps from a school bus stop. In the yard next door, one is swallowing a tree. Now, anytime there is a decent rainfall, the water fills the holes, if not the entire front yard.

“It looks like a giant swimming pool,” Deminne said.

Until the problem is fixed, Deminne figures her property is essentially worthless.

And she fears the consequences of inaction could be more serious. Nearby, there’s a dip in the road, just uphill from one of the largest sinkholes. Deminne took a video as a school bus bounced over it and sent it to the county school board. She hopes that if her persistence hasn’t gotten county leaders’ attention, a bus full of children might.

Mark Belton, the Charles County administrator, said he has made climate change top of mind. Belton held the county’s top post from 2012 to 2014, immediately before serving as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s natural resources secretary through 2019.

When he returned to Charles, he enrolled county leaders in a “climate academy” — a course the state created while he led the natural resources department — to make climate policies a priority. Belton proposed in late 2020 establishing the resilience authority, Maryland’s first.

He said he sees solving the stormwater infrastructure debacle as a complicated venture, but one the county has no other choice but to try.

By the end of the year, he said, he expects the resilience authority to hire a contractor to help evaluate and rank the infrastructure needs of neighborhoods around the county. He said Deminne’s neighborhood, Maxwell Hall, could rank near the top of that list.

Climate Conversations

As resilience authorities get established, how projects are chosen and paid for could vary. Proponents of the initiatives say it will be up to communities to decide — including whether to pay for them with new local fees.

Costs could be shared among residents and businesses within a county, a municipality or even a neighborhood, depending on who is willing to pay for such projects. The fees could be like the one tacked onto sewer bills across the state that’s dedicated to Chesapeake Bay restoration.

The resilience authorities could also qualify for grants and other types of philanthropy. With a critical mass of public support and promised investment, Throwe said, the authorities’ projects would, in turn, be more competitive for federal dollars.

In Charles County, there is no estimate of how much it might cost to buy up all the stormwater infrastructure, let alone to rebuild it.

But there is, so far, the political will to figure it out. The county commissioners set aside a third of what Charles is receiving through the American Rescue Plan Act, about $11 million, to get the effort started. Belton has suggested possible other sources, including grants, county budget surpluses, congressional earmarks or the federal infrastructure investment that lawmakers continue to debate.

While resilience authorities can’t fund infrastructure investments by themselves, they can provide local governments a path toward tackling those projects, said John Cleveland, executive director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, a group focused on helping that city adapt to climate change.

Building consensus to pursue such investments can be difficult without a weather disaster to show the importance of resilience, Cleveland said. While Maryland has had some climate shocks, such as two devastating floods in Ellicott City, Cleveland said sees it as a good sign that some communities are exploring resilience independent of such events.

“By the time those shock events happen, you’ve lost a lot of valuable time to get prevention in place,” he said.

In Montgomery, County Executive Marc Elrich has said his administration supports expanding the role of the county’s Green Bank, now mostly focused on clean energy, to serve as a resilience authority.

Queen Anne’s County was among the first jurisdictions to work with Throwe and explore what a resilience authority could accomplish. Before it moves forward, county Planning Director Amy Moredock said it is finalizing a plan to address nuisance flooding and adopt stricter standards for construction in flood plains.

In Baltimore, City Council President Nick Mosby and Councilman Mark Conway plan to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to create a resilience authority. It would follow other recent legislative proposals to address climate change’s effects, such as increasing the number of “cool” roofs to limit the urban heat island effect and steps to promote the transition to electric vehicles.

They said that while residents may be used to dealing with flooded basements and repeated heat waves, relatively few connect those conditions to climate change. More needs to be done to link cause with effect, and to do something about it, they said.

“If we do absolutely nothing, all the problems that persist today are only going to get worse,” Mosby said. “This is an important time for us to go down this path.”

©2021 Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Special Projects