Deep into a three-hour meeting, the talk of trees was growing wearisome.

The Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission was considering whether to approve the city’s massive $88 million public works project to lift part of its downtown waterfront above where cascading floods driven by climate change often rise.

But the trees envisioned in sketches were in the way. Of the view. Of the water. Of a decision.

Were the trees too tall? Were there too many trees? Did you know they’ll be in pots, so they can be moved? How would they look with leaves or without? Did they meet the city requirement that trees be at least 15 feet apart?

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Most importantly, how would the planned trees change the view in a city fiercely invested in this small piece of land where the Chesapeake Bay and American history intersect? What would the four signers of the Declaration of Independence who lived up the street three centuries ago think of replacing the City Dock parking lot with a park?

Commissioner Wil Scott seemed to have his fill. Enough.

“I think we’re looking at it from the wrong perspective,” he said. “What we’re talking about today, William Paca didn’t see it. Samuel Chase didn’t see it. … We’re talking about what we know the city to be today.”

Eventually, commission members — appointed to judge what can change in the Annapolis Historic District — voted unanimously on March 28 to approve the site plan for the city’s long-brewing flood mitigation project. It would convert the 150 parking spaces at City Dock to a green space raised 8 feet above water, providing protection from future floodwaters and an overdue refresh for an old, old city.

The vote is considered the final local approval for the overall plan, although seven conditions spelled out in the decision will bring it back for more votes. Work on federal approval started Thursday as city officials met with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is sitting on a $30 million grant crucial to getting started.

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The vote was, however, a watershed moment in the war between the future and history of Annapolis.

Mayor Gavin Buckley isn’t shy about calling it a war — a clash between past, present and the next 50 years.

“When are you going to write about my war with Historic Annapolis?” he asked me after the vote.

On the other side, people are fighting to protect their vision of Annapolis — one where the way it’s always been is worth protecting and where change should come slowly, if at all.

“The staff report states that the application is partially compliant,” former commission Chair Sharon Kennedy warned ominously during the hearing. “That means it is also partially not compliant.

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“The staff recommendation to issue a conditional approval is consistent neither with past practice of the commission nor with the existing rules of procedure with the HPC,” she added.

Changing Annapolis has been Buckley’s brand since he was elected in 2017, and there’s no sign that will change in the 20 months left in his final term. He ended Kennedy’s 15-year tenure on the commission right after taking office, and let other longtime board and commission members go recently — including HPC Chair Tim Leahy — because he wants projects to move ahead before he steps down.

“What is urgent now is flood protection,” Buckley told the commission. “We are on track to have some of the highest flooding since I’ve been in office, if not historic. … We are here today to talk about flood protection and the park. The park is the flood protection.”

Baltimore is redeveloping its Inner Harbor as an economic project with climate change and flood protection an afterthought. But if Annapolis puts climate change out front, economics are just below the surface.

The expanded green space would bring more people and dollars to a City Dock that hasn’t changed much since the 1960s. In the city’s 375 years, the space has been a shipyard and a lumber yard, as well as a place where fishing boats unloaded their catch and people catch their tour boats. Oyster shacks gave way to fuel tanks, then gas stations and then restaurants and shops.

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Only in the last 50 to 60 years has it looked as it does today — a parking lot dominated by a brick building for bathrooms and the harbormaster with a small brick-lined square at the harbor’s edge.

A proposal to raise height limits next to City Dock is hovering beyond this project, clearing the way for the first new hotel since 1967. Investors are snapping up historic buildings, including Middleton Tavern. Built in 1750, it sold for $3.3 million last spring, although the family that runs the namesake restaurant kept their lease.

A maritime welcome center proposed on the edge of Spa Creek — blending a 19th-century waterman’s home with a modern structure and a park at the Naval Academy gate — is intended to make Annapolis even more attractive to boaters and their money. It won’t be submitted for consideration until next month.

Preservationists are clear. They want the flood barriers, but not all the changes the plan will bring.

“We all know there is much at stake,” Historic Annapolis CEO Karen Brown told the commission.

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The Maritime Welcome Center, a key feature of the $88 million remaking of City Dock in Annapolis, shows a twin-gabled, wood-sided building right on the harbor.
The Maritime Welcome Center, a key feature of the $88 million remaking of City Dock in Annapolis, would sit on Spa Creek at right. It will be introduced for approval next month. (Courtesy of BCT Design Group)

As Kennedy did, she urged the commission to wait until all of the plan’s details are known. Pop-up flood barriers wrap around some of Ego Alley, but flood mitigation design on Compromise Street hasn’t been finished.

“As presented, the flood barrier projection is still incomplete,” Brown said. “The City Dock remains threatened without continued resiliency planning along Compromise Street. And I want to reiterate that future design must go before the HPC and be subject to public review and input.”

And those trees. Oh, everyone agrees trees are good. In principle, at least.

“The city should aggressively protect the view,” Brown said. “This setting, where Spa feeds into the Chesapeake, is central to the unique character of the historic district and the telling of its story.

“This view cannot be compromised.”

Last week’s hearing continued. They argued about demolishing the harbormaster building, acting Chair Kevin Smith’s decision to make the hearing digital rather than in person, and city officials’ decision not to make the staff analysis of the plan public well before the meeting.

“We members of the public have the right to help you make the right decision for Annapolis,” downtown resident John Richards said.

Preservations are far from done. FEMA has begun its review under the National Environmental Policy Act, usually called NEPA. It will look at the effectiveness of the plan and its impact on everything connected to it — the environment, private properties and even the history that is part of the Annapolis identity.

The process is akin to a train leaving the station. It will get to yes, but the Maryland Historical Trust, which holds easements on that historic waterman’s home at City Dock and a dozen other properties nearby, will work to go around all the history along the way.

“MHT provides comments (not approval or denial) to the federal agency and strives to find successful solutions that balance project needs with historic preservation requirements,” State Preservation Officer Elizabeth Hughes said in a statement released by her office.

All of them — the commission, FEMA, preservationists, City Hall and residents — will continue to wrestle with the simple question at the center of the plan to protect Annapolis.

What will Maryland’s state capital give up to save itself from the ever-increasing floods and the rising tide of climate change, and what will it get in exchange?

As commissioner William Williams asked, “Where do we draw the line?”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where 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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