Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Soil Conservation District Dust Up

Two weeks ago the Howard County Soil Conservation District put all county development plans on hold when they determined they could no longer financially support the review of sediment and erosion control plans. They claimed to have suddenly run out of money to perform this task. This so called “independent agency” receives over a half million dollars a year from the county for this work. According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun, the county also furnishes the district with “two vehicles, gasoline, repairs, telephone and computer support, and administrative services for purchasing, office supplies, plus benefits for five employees at the Woodbine office. Just how independent does that make them?

The thing is, the sediment control and erosion reviews could easily be performed instead by the county and that is exactly what Ken Ulman thinks should be done. Earlier this year he attempted to shift this work to the Planning and Zoning department where it logically belongs. He withdrew this plan in the face of political heat generated by Robert Ensor, the soil district manager. Robert wrapped himself in the self righteous cloak of defender of the earth to keep this bounty from the county. He insists that the county needs an “independent agency” to basically oversee sediment fences at construction sites.

“That bill failed amid claims by Ensor that it represented a power grab that would threaten the independence of his agency. Ensor won that round, but in April Ulman cut the funds for the two reviewers from his proposed budget at the district's request, said budget director Raymond S. Wacks. Ensor said the agency would charge its own fees to builders to raise money for the two workers, though Wacks argued it would be very expensive to provide the same benefits the county offers and there was no guarantee there would be enough work to generate adequate fees for two salaries.”

The Soil Conservation District is a throwback to the Great Depression. It was created back at a time when most Maryland counties were dominated by agriculture “to advise farmers on how to avoid the kind of erosion that helped create huge dust storms in the 1930"s.”

It isn't about the environment. Its about the money.


Anonymous said...

Independent oversight is necessary, valued and appreciated by anyone who's not already forgotten the financial markets' recent travails already, resulting, in large part, from lack of adequate independent oversight.

Anonymous said...

Wordbones -- there is a lot more to this story than what Larry Carson publishes. SCD is indeed an independent, specialized review outside the County review process, and until Ulman installed his new Deputy Hench-man in DPZ, coordinated all reviews with the County.

The State of Maryland requires all Sediment and Erosion Control Plans for development to be reviewed and approved by SCD -- not the County -- for a reason. Yes, SCD plays a major part in argicultural issues, but they are also tasked with Urban review -- by the state -- because of their unique environmental engineering specialization, which goes beyond civil engineering in tying several state goals together.

Furthermore, SCD is valued for their specialized knowledge in how sedimentation impacts rivers and streams, furthering the goals of the Forest Conservation Act and Cheaseapeake Bay cleanup, and to ensure dam safety in stormwater management ponds. The real outrage coming from the Development Community is that while Ulman (or whatever elected politician)can pull DPZ's strings and make the staff reluctantly approve plans that really do not meet the intent of County Law, SCD would be a lone voice of objection. And until the DPZ Henchman was installed, DPZ would work with the developer and SCD to come up with a reasonable solution. Remember, there is no independent approval of most development projects in this County -- 97% of development is approved at the staff level. So yes, SCD does provide some independent review -- independent of the political pressures of the County.

You are right that it is about money -- but the Developer's money. Your outrage should be directed at the fact that while surrounding County's SCDs have levied their own fees onto Developers for years, it has been in Howard County where we have subsidized those Developer's fees out of the general fund. -- From "In the know".

Anonymous said...

Henchmen are installed by design, so the responsibility still goes to the elected official who appointed him/her.

I'd be shocked if WB and Carson didn't already suspect and recoil from 'in the know's facts.

The only party in the dark is the taxpayer who has been subsidizing county development to quite 'vibrant' levels, as in, traffic was quite vibrant this morning, like a parking lot.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely -- henchman are installed for a reason, and the buzz-phrases DPZers hear as the reason is so they are not "too regulatory". What does that mean if your job description is to enforce regulations? The administration wants all decisions made on a "case-by-case basis" and apply laws only when specific objectives are met.And if their friends and influential folks are developing, then the whole process is orchestrated and overseen.- ITK

Anonymous said...

That makes our county no different than a totalitarian regime.

The influential get preferential treatment, while the rest of us are stopped cold at the gate.

We're a county of men and not law, but also lying about it.

There will come a day, folks. There will come a day.

Freemarket said...

Statement of the week, courtesy of Raymond Wacks: “…Wacks argued it would be very expensive to provide the same benefits the county offers and there was no guarantee there would be enough work to generate adequate fees for two salaries.”

Wow. That scenario plays out everyday in the world of private enterprise. That is why private businesses spend their money much more wisely than government.

Just Ask DPZ said...

The County Executive asked for a financial audit of SCD (which collected private funds to avoid furloughing two staff reviewers).

You can expect to see a state audit of the county's disregard for the environmental regulations that they are responsible for enforcing.

The handwriting is on the wall. The county could lose its (federal/state) delegated authority to approve development plans.

So much for "going green" to prepare for the 2014 Gubernatorial campaign ......

Bob O said...

This has been said by others here (and can we all start posting as someone other than "Anonymous"? Man! That guy is EVERYWHERE on the interwebs!).

Basically, the SCD provides an independent review of issues that WILL EFFECT PEOPLE OUTSIDE OF HOWARD COUNTY. That's why they are there, and that's why they are not creatures of the county.

It's called checks and balances, and oversight, people.

Oh, and they also have th education, background and experience to know what they are doing.

Steve said...

Bob, the developers trying to kill SCD (and their elected mouthpieces, like Calvin) don't care about the environmental consequences, especially if the impact is downstream.

It's all about the Benjamin$.

Anonymous said...

Steve nailed it.

Howard said...

This all started because the Executive lied and said he wanted to save $220,000 dollars. Instead of auditng the District..how about the County audits itself and figures out how much money and time has been spent "saving" $220,000? The biggest waste of tax payer dollars is the County Council, in particular, Calvin Ball and Mary Kay Sigaty. These two might as well step up and admit they are in the developer's pockets.

Anonymous said...

Now Howard has nailed it.

Howard said...

OK, so the District has been fighting since sometime in January to be able to charge a plan review and they're NOT!! Instead the two guys who review plans have been laid off and the subdivision process is shut down again!! While I blame Ulman for starting this whole nonsense, that District Manager should be FIRED!

Someone needs to explain to me why they're not charging a fee. The Executive did not sign off on the fee schedule the Council approved so the schedule the District submitted is the one that goes into effect. If I'm reading the law correctly they should have been charging the fee starting on the 17th of this month, instead, two people laid off and the subdivision process shut down..again. Did I mention the District Manager shoudl be fired??