No one likes a zoning hearing. That’s a fact.

No journalist ever relished one, no lawyer rubbed his hands in glee and no nervous property owner ever, ever wished for endless hours of talk about land-use law.

Which leads me to an interesting question. Does Gavin Buckley control the weather?

If you wanted to focus the public’s mind on a zoning hearing, it would be the one that starts Thursday. The Annapolis Planning Commission will hold the first of two hearings on the largest public works projects in city history.

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The $90 million plan for City Dock would create barriers intended to block worsening storm surges and sunny-day flooding that damage businesses and threaten some of the oldest buildings in America.

And, if you wanted to make clear the importance of swift approval, you would preface the normally snoozy proceedings with a winter storm that pushed 5.1 feet of frigid water into low-lying buildings.

“I think it would be reckless of them to hold up the construction schedule,” said Buckley, the Annapolis mayor pushing the plan.

For the record, no. Buckley did not use some secret space technology to spin up a winter storm to make the point that the long-gestating plan to save downtown from climate change needs to move ahead. But the point was lost on nobody.

“It’s great looking forward to finalization of docks,” said Ryan Lamy, owner of Pip’s Dock Street Dogs, who is looking at flood-related repairs that will mean two weeks of lost revenue. “What we dealt with on Tuesday, I don’t think any of us were prepared for it.”

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Standing in a row Friday at City Dock, Lamy joined Buckley, two state lawmakers, two alderwomen and a bevy of city and county officials to talk about an emergency declaration that opened disaster relief grants of up to $50,000 for businesses damaged by the latest flooding.

The grants are funded through the state share of casino revenue, and businesses can start applying this week. The pool of money isn’t limitless, and the total available for individual businesses could change depending on the number of applications.

There was plenty of damage. The city declared 17 buildings unfit for use after the water receded. It was the third-worst flood on record in downtown Annapolis and in parts of Eastport across Spa Creek. That puts it behind only the 7.1 feet recorded during the devastating Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003 and 6.3 feet during an unnamed storm in 1933.

“We are going to continue to see these natural disasters impact our communities,” said state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, who represents Annapolis and is running for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 3rd District. “That’s the bad news. But the good news is, with every tornado and every flood, we get better. We get better at cutting the red tape. We get better at responding.”

Last year, Elfreth and Del. Dana Jones, who also represents the Annapolis area, won approval of legislation that made it possible to open disaster relief funds once a local state of emergency is declared. Previously, relief was available only after the governor made the declaration.

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“Some of the damage is extensive equipment failures. Wet floors, obviously, wet carpets. The walls and foundations internal to the buildings are filling with water, some water still standing in some structures,” said Chris Jakubiak, city director of inspections and permits. “That’s the typical set of damage we’re seeing.”

When Eileen Fogarty, co-chair of the City Dock Action Committee, and Burr Vogel present the plans to remake City Dock to protect against future floods, they’ll delve into a plan well discussed at this point.

Most surface parking would be removed from City Dock, with motorists encouraged to use the recently redeveloped Hillman Garage. That would free the city’s most prominent plaza for a park raised 6 feet above the current level, complete with a fountain, a pergola and walkways that can be shifted to accommodate an expanded range of activities.

Seawalls that can be raised to 8 feet — one foot more than Isabel’s deluge — would wrap around the shoreline. Combined with a stone seawall being built at the Naval Academy, that height should protect the most vulnerable part of the city.

The timetable has changed. When the plan was unveiled in September, it called for work to start this month and wrap up by the end of 2025. Now, although some electrical work will begin immediately after approval, removing parking and raising the area won’t start until after the fall boat shows.

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That pushes completion into mid-2026 at the earliest, after the next city election. Buckley, in his final two years due to term limits, would be out of office by the time ribbon-cutting rolls around. Negotiations with three private property owners continue on plans to wrap protection around the entire Ego Alley basin.

What won’t be on the table Thursday is the most controversial part of the project: a welcome center aimed at boaters. Complaints were lodged about its scale, how it would be used and how it might affect a historic waterman’s home preserved on the site.

Buckley said the proposal was split off to avoid bogging down the project’s major focus. Plans for the center are being changed to address some of the concerns.

“The flood protection should not be politicized,” he said.

The planning commission is one of three bodies that must vote on the plan. Because the work will take place within the Historic District, the Historic Preservation Committee will also consider it. So, eventually, will the City Council.

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When the planning commission meets at 7 p.m. Thursday, it will do so in person under a new chair, attorney Robert Waldman. City boards and commissions that serve a quasi-judicial role — the power to approve or reject proposals — are returning to in-person sessions at City Hall after three years of pandemic-induced virtual meetings. The hearing will also be livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel.

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The timing of last week’s storm may serve another useful purpose. It hit the city just as state lawmakers returned to Annapolis for the 90-day General Assembly session.

Annapolis will be seeking another $3 million in the state budget for the project, and the flooding illustrated the work at hand. The city is still waiting for approval of a $30 million federal grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Even if the climate project is approved and completed, it won’t mean the end of flooding in Annapolis. Tuesday’s storm also damaged buildings in Eastport, including small shops and the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

Buckley said future plans include ideas such as providing businesses with individual protection tools, such as “Dutch door dams” that create a flood barrier.

“We want to figure out a way that we can stay viable. But these flooding events that are happening more and more often [are] not sustainable for us,” said Alice Estrada, president and CEO of the maritime museum.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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