Planned warehouse district threatens wetlands, Chesapeake Bay, residents and environmentalists say

Cutting down trees across 200 acres in Harford County would harm water quality, they say, and violate Maryland’s Nontidal Wetlands Protection Act.

Published on: August 23, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

Updated on: August 23, 2022 at 3:40 pm EDT

Jeanna Tillery said it feels like she’s going through a spell of heartbreaks. An African American woman in her 70s, Tillery is a retired health professional and Baltimore City native. She and her husband moved to Maryland’s Harford County in 2014, lured by its country feel and a vast forested area next to their three-story single-family home in a neighborhood called Pomeroy Manor.

Now, she wakes up every day to the mechanical hum of the construction work, felling old-growth trees and tearing into 326 acres of wetlands known as Abingdon Woods that almost touches the rear of her house. An ecosystem consisting of wooded forest, wetlands and marshes, Abingdon Woods provides essential habitat, regulates the climate and filters sediments and nutrients from entering into the Chesapeake Bay through the Bush River watershed—a tidal estuary almost 117 miles in length and comprising over 520 miles of streams, according to the National Water Quality Monitoring Council.

Tillery’s present troubles stem from a county court decision handed down on Aug. 3, which denied the motion for injunctive relief filed by residents and Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the environmental nonprofit. They had asked the court to stop the clearing of mature trees on the wetlands until a final decision is reached by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. The court is reviewing their challenge to a 2020 decision by the county circuit court approving the development of Abingdon Business Park in the forested wetlands. They argue in the suit that the removal of trees from more than 200 acres of forested land would negatively impact water quality and neighboring properties.

The suit also said, among other things, that the county’s approval failed to explain why the developer’s plans to replace the existing forest with impervious surface would not impact water quality, and failed to make the required findings for a waiver to remove 49 large trees.

The Abingdon Business Park development plan, approved in December 2019 by Harford County, calls for turning 200 acres of the wetlands forest into an industrial site comprising multiple large warehouses totaling over 1 million square feet, as well as restaurants, a hotel and retail space. The land was rezoned for commercial development use in 1982 and, for decades, lay dormant. The county council voted to incorporate the area into an enterprise zone, extending tax benefits for developing the land.

Another suit before the same county circuit court, filed by the nonprofit legal aid group Chesapeake Legal on behalf of the nonprofit Gunpowder Riverkeeper, has challenged the Maryland Department of the Environment’s wetlands and waterways permitting of the project, arguing that the agency did not fulfill the criteria in the state’s Nontidal Wetlands Protection Act.

The developers of Abingdon Business Park, identified in court documents as BTC III I-95 Logistics Center LLC and Harford Investors LLP, did not respond to requests for comment.

With decisions in both the cases potentially weeks or months away, removal of trees and clearing of land is underway in Abingdon Woods, and the residents are wondering if the wetlands would still be there by the time decisions are handed down.

Tillery said she is devastated that the court allowed development work to continue. “It reminds me of the construction of Route 40, the highway to nowhere, which destroyed the vibrant African American neighborhoods in the vicinity of Baltimore’s Harlem Park area,” she said, lamenting that now a precious wetland is being cut down to construct an industrial center.

Development projects have flourished across Maryland under its business-friendly and term-limited governor Larry Hogan, who, environmental advocates say, prioritized economic activities at the cost of the state’s needs for environmental good governance. Hogan’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Converting precious wetlands and wooded forests also negate Harford County’s goal articulated in the HarfordNEXT Master Plan, advocates said, which seeks to increase tree canopy by 2 percent and establish stricter limits on impervious surfaces and forest clearing.

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Environmentalists said that converting intact forests into large tracts of impervious surfaces such as warehouses, road networks and parking lots, would send ever more nutrient runoffs and pollution into fragile watersheds, such as the Chesapeake Bay, making state’s environmental and climate goals even harder to attain. The state is already struggling to contain excess nitrogen and phosphorus entering the bay because of the catastrophic failure of its two largest wastewater treatment plants, owned by the city of Baltimore, which are spilling millions of gallons of untreated wastewater into the waterways.

Cutting down and paving over nature reserves, which act as natural buffers against extreme weather events and heat waves spurred by climate change, make communities vulnerable and compound health and equity problems, the advocates said, adding that these projects contradict the Biden administration’s commitment to make communities more resilient against climate challenges.

The residents nearby Abingdon Woods said the project nearly slipped under the radar. “If it weren’t for a few residents who spotted a barely noticeable sign posted inconspicuously, it would have been too late to do anything,” Tillery said. “Once we realized what was going on, we had to go to court to get another period of public comment from the Maryland Department of the Environment.”

It’s like talking to yourself, she said, because none of what they said made any difference. Barry Glassman, the Harford County executive, Tillery said, “has refused to meet with us for the last three years, which tells us that the county government has no sensitivity to the needs of the people who live here.” County officials, she said, keep insisting that they cannot tell private owners what to do with their property.

“But that’s not true. They tell private owners every day of every week what to do with their property,” she said. “You can’t get a tree in your own yard in Harford County without permission or remove a tree from your own yard. So that’s just a convenient lie.”

Tillery said that development of the Abingdon Business Park would leave two elementary schools serving kids from lower income families sandwiched between the two warehouses slated for construction–one at the back of the schools and the other across from them. “That’s what environmental injustice looks like,” she said.

Cynthia Mumby, Harford County’s governmental and community relations director, said in a written statement that Abingdon Business Park is privately owned and when private property owners decide to develop their land, the county government’s responsibility is to ensure they follow applicable laws and regulations.

“These regulations are adopted through a public process to balance the rights of private property owners with those of the community and they include requirements to mitigate the environmental impact,” she said, adding that relevant staff members routinely respond to citizen inquiries and have met with citizens on this matter.

Seema Kakade, professor of law and director of the environmental law clinic at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, said that “development of land constitutes one of the largest threats to the environment, particularly as related to climate change and natural buffers in coastal areas.”

Kakade said there should be significant restrictions on where and how private landowners can develop land. “Yet, in the absence of restrictions, private landowners themselves should demonstrate caution on where and how they develop land,” she said. “Combating climate change is everyone’s duty.”

A 2012 assessment by Maryland Department of Natural Resources said that Maryland lost approximately 873,000 acres of farmland from 1950 to 2007 and, between 1950 and 2011, an average of 7,000 acres of forest per year.

The analysis attributed the loss of forests across the state to “uninformed local land use decisions leading to the parcelization and fragmentation of forests and conversion to non-forest uses,” adding that there are numerous opportunities for local governments to better incorporate forest conservation into land use planning.

Mark Shaffer, communications director for Maryland Department of the Environment, said in a statement that the agency’s review of the Abingdon Business Park concluded that the project applicant had met the statutory and regulatory requirements for permit issuance.

“The project as proposed is located in a State Designated Enterprise Zone,” he said, “...to encourage business development, expansion, and investment.”

The business park is also located in the Harford County Development Envelope, he said, “which is intended to help to channel growth and development” and limit sprawl to preserve rural and natural resources.

Erik Fisher, assistant director with the environmental nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that the state loses about 3,000 acres a year of forest, year after year. “So, when we add those up over a period of time, it really starts to have major negative impacts for water quality, for our climate, and for community health,” he said.

“What happens when you start to lose that much forest in a concentrated area is that the soils start to move,” Fisher said. “That leads to increased sedimentation in the waterways, and too much nitrogen and phosphorus pollution going into the water because there is no natural filter anymore to soak up those pollutants.”

The state legislature committed over $100 million to plant 5 million trees over the next 10 years, he said, which, in due time, is going to make communities healthier and water cleaner. “But if you extend that 3,000 acres trend that we’ve lost in the past, land development will level as many acres as we’re planting through that program. So, we are definitely working across purposes right now,” Fisher said.

Constructing warehouses and retail centers on undeveloped lands in farming and rural neighborhoods is part of the wider trend to consolidate distribution networks around major interstate arteries, such as I-95 and Highway 40, connecting cities and ports, for promptly delivering merchandise to American consumers shopping online. For now, most of these distribution centers dotting Harford county lay empty, waiting to fulfill the economic potentials that brought them to fruition, residents near Abingdon Woods pointed out.

The rural residential town of Perryman, located eight miles east of Abingdon Woods, across the Bush River, is another example of this development trend, with more than 700 acres of farmland, known as Mitchell Farm, proposed as the site for five freight distribution buildings. That amounts to more than 5 million square feet of warehouse space, in addition to a similar stretch of land slated for roadway and parking, according to Protect Perryman Peninsula, the organization opposing the development through public advocacy and lawsuit against the Mitchell Farm Project.

As with Abingdon Wood, Perryman residents have been campaigning to stop the project from going forward, moving online petitions, lobbying county officials, and highlighting the environmental harms from large-scale development. But the project is already moving through the permitting stage. The community filed a suit against the project in Anne Arundel circuit court on June 7, arguing that the proposed freight terminal is illegal and creates a public and private nuisance for others living on the peninsula. A hearing is now scheduled for the defendant’s motions to dismiss and the plaintiff’s opposition.

“We’re suing the county for whatever we can,” said Glenn Dudderer, a resident of Perryman and former associate professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “The lawsuit says that this project is in violation of county code,” he said, calling the Abingdon Woods and Mitchell Farm projects a “two-pronged frontal assault on the north end of the Bush River—one on the east and the other on the west.”

The Chesapeake Bay used to have vast beds of submerged aquatic vegetation, he said, which the crabs use during their reproductive cycle. “It’s a place where the females hide when they’re in soft shell, to protect themselves from the blue catfish. So, this has enormous value for commercial crabbing,” he said. “These aquatic vegetation beds are also important to rock fish and they act as a nursery area just to name a few species.” He wondered if the Maryland Department of the Environment factored the impact of Abingdon Woods’ development on these vegetation beds in its permit approval.

Dudderer, who also worked for the forest service for three years, said that Maryland claims it is dedicated to protecting water quality and aquatic life in the Chesapeake Bay, and to reducing the causes of climate change. “Yet it approves the destruction of this forested wetland. How can it be?” he asked.

The other issue that worries Dudderer is the stormwater management plan Maryland Department of the Environment has OK’d for Abingdon Woods. “I have reviewed the plan and found it to be inadequate by MDE standards,” he said.

Dudderer pointed out that the developers were putting stormwater management ponds immediately adjacent to the 100-year floodplain.

“I have an active memory of about 70 years and in 1953 Hurricane Hazel flooded this area with 100-year flood. And then in 1955 hurricanes Connie and Diane flooded this area with 100-year floods, and in 1972, Hurricane Agnes again flooded this area,” Dudderer said, also counting Hurricane Isabel in 2002.

“That’s four 100-year floods. And putting stormwater management ponds on the edge of that floodplain to me seems reckless,” he said, “because whenever there was a bigger rainfall, these stormwater management ponds will be part of the floods.”

Aman Azhar is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who covers environmental justice for Inside Climate News with a focus on the Baltimore-Maryland area.

This story is published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.