Alex Haley’s bronze shoes were dry Thursday afternoon, safely above the 2-foot flood tide that slipped over the dinghy landing at City Dock in Annapolis.
The statue of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is an unofficial flood gauge in America’s capital of climate change, where rising seas pose a threat to the future of a historic seat of government. The city is embarking on a $90 million remake of its downtown waterfront to protect its most vulnerable neighborhoods.
On Saturday, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley will lead an unprecedented trip to the Netherlands for five days, hoping to learn what else the city can do and what Maryland and the nation can learn from Annapolis.
“This is the biggest infrastructure project in the history of the city,” Buckley said during a Thursday walk around City Dock. “We have a governor who says, this is Maryland’s decade. It’s our time to lead. We’re going to set the pace. And I believe the Dutch are the leaders in the world in resilience, maybe more in bike infrastructure.”
Buckley, Maryland Planning Secretary Rebecca Flora, Maryland disaster risk reduction director Sara Bender, members of the City Council and others will head to the Netherlands in hopes of gaining insight into what’s ahead and how to deal with it.
They’ll also take some nice bike rides.
The delegation will visit the Maeslant Barrier; the Noordwaard Polder flood and farming zones; and an in-dune parking garage at Katwijk aan Zee that helps fund climate resilience projects. Annapolis is using a similar garage remake to fund its project.
“I’m really interested in the flood protection measures,” said Patrick Denker, a member of the Spa Creek Conservancy who will join the trip. “That’s why I was all for a larger delegation.”
All is no joke. Through his family foundation in Texas, the Eastport resident donated $20,000 to pay for about a third of the cost of the trip. The city paid $34,000 out of the city budget, with grants and individual delegation members’ own resources covering the rest. The total cost of the trip is about $75,000.
Buckley, Flora and Bender will be joined by four members of the council, Brooks Schandelmeier, DaJuan Gay, Karma O’Neill and Rob Savidge.
Others who plan to make the trip include City Manager Mike Mallinoff; Deputy City Manager for Resilience and Sustainability Jacqueline Guild; Director of Transportation Markus Moore; Director of Public Works Burr Vogel; Tanya Asman, Anne Arundel County bicycle and pedestrian planner; and Denker.
Julien Jacques, an independent videographer who works with the city, also will attend to create a record of the trip.
Different members of the trip have individual priorities.
Asman, Schandelmeier and a handful of others plan to attend the International Cycling Safety Conference in The Hague. It’s an academic forum for researchers and experts in the field of cycling.
A spokesperson for Flora said the secretary was interested in a visit planned to the Van Nelle Factory, a repurposed industrial site, and meetings with various resilience planners and urban designers in Rotterdam. Bender, meanwhile, is hoping to learn about hazard mitigation and community resilience in the Netherlands, a spokesperson said.
Buckley has wanted to make this trip since a delegation from the Netherlands visited Annapolis in October 2022, touring the waterfront and meeting with the council. They offered to host city officials on a reciprocal trip focused on a cycling tour to show off the country’s bicycle infrastructure.
That developed into a resilience tour, studying everything from how to finance projects to floating development and to protect the beauty of a spot while putting up walls to hold back the sea.
The bicycling conference comes as Anne Arundel County and Annapolis are fleshing out a network of bike trails, including a dedicated path from the popular B&A Trail across the Naval Academy Bridge into Annapolis. Buckley is an avid cyclist, often seen biking to work in a suit, as are others on the trip.
Most of the trip, however, will focus on resilience to climate change-driven flooding. Buckley already is a popular guest speaker asked to talk about the Annapolis project.
“I want this to be the resilience capital of the country,” the mayor said. “We are going to be. Not many people are doing it the way we’ve done it and the way we financed it and the way we’ve brought people together around it.”
Next month, two city panels are expected to begin deliberations on the plan to save Annapolis from flooding. It would raise the public waterfront at City Dock by 8 feet and create a public park with a welcome center for boaters.
The administration wants to begin construction early next year and complete it by late 2025 or early 2026. It is an ambitious schedule that will require approval by the City Council.
One part of the plan meeting resistance is the Maritime Welcome Center and the repurposing of the historic Burtis House. It is the last remaining waterman’s home on Spa Creek and the Maryland Historical Trust holds an easement.
City officials met with the trust Monday to discuss incorporating the house into the welcome center. They have decided to separate seeking approval for the overall plan and the center.
More than just City Dock faces threats of climate change driven by a warming atmosphere. Seventeen of Maryland’s counties plus Baltimore City are at risk. Higher water means more nuisance flooding like Thursday, but also the potential for devastating storm surges and rainstorms that drive flash flooding.
In Annapolis, other parts of the city flood frequently, too. The City Council, under this mayor or future ones, will have to decide how to protect them.
Buckley has been the driving force behind the trip to see what the Dutch have done with dikes, floodgates and dunes. He approached Denker, whose foundation has supported public water access projects on Spa Creek and invited both county and state officials to go at the city’s expense.
One of the highlights of the trip will be the Maeslant Barrier near Rotterdam. Its gates, each the size of the Eiffel Tower laying on its side, closes automatically when the water rises 6 feet above normal.
Trips by city officials are not unusual, sometimes to overseas destinations such as sister cities in Africa and Europe. There are travel and education funds in the budget. But no one familiar with council history knew of anything similar by a majority of the council.
It’s so rare that the Buckley administration consulted with its Office of Law to determine if having a quorum at 6 miles above the Atlantic or cycling around the Strandpad-Duinpad loop in Delft would violate Maryland open meetings laws.
Paying for the trip involved the Resilience Authority of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County. Created to plan and fund climate resilience projects, it collected donations from Denker along with other grants and helped organize the itinerary.
“Back when I worked with the state, we had a chance to meet with a delegation from the Netherlands and [it] was a tremendous opportunity to exchange ideas with world leaders in flood protection; ecosystem restoration and innovative policies/practices to address flooding and sea level rise,” executive director Matt Fleming wrote in an email. “I know personally it influenced how I approached coastal restoration.”
City officials are aware of how an expensive trip abroad will appear to people who are unhappy with the economy, aspects of the City Dock project or government spending in general.
“I’m already starting to hear about it,” said Gay, the youngest member of the council.
More frequently involved in issues such as housing and crime, the alderman said climate resilience is a crucial issue. Spending money to understand expensive projects is worthwhile, he said.
“Because this is overseas, it piques a lot of interest. I don’t think it’s something new at all.”