Bay Journal

Baltimore’s ‘most elegant’ new community not fit for a fish

  • By Tom Horton on March 06, 2017
Dipping Pond Run’s few miles remain the last refuge of wild trout in the sprawling Jones Falls drainage. Once development goes in nearby, it is unlikely the trout will survive.  (Dave Harp)

It has been my joy and anguish through the last five decades to keep track of little Dipping Pond Run, a rare and trouty tributary of Baltimore’s central drainage way, the Jones Falls.

Exquisitely sensitive to water quality, trout are not just a fish, but an idea, a synecdoche — something whose very presence proclaims that a larger whole remains intact, that in some small way we may be learning peaceful coexistence with the rest of nature.

Of course, this is Baltimore County, and I should have known better.

In the 1970s, as the Baltimore Sun’s first full-time environmental reporter, I used Dipping Pond Run as an example of a fully functioning stream. The superb harmony of a creek nurtured by runoff filtering through and buffered by a natural landscape, “translated into trout,” I wrote.

I was talking about native brook trout, the loveliest of fish, brilliantly stippled with yellow and red spots fringed by blue halos. It is no accident they are the state fish in most of the Chesapeake Bay watershed — New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Nearly half a century ago, development occupied only 2 percent of the little run’s 3-square-mile watershed. Much beyond that, and the “brookies” start to have a hard time, biologists know. Indeed, by 1995, they had vanished there. Pollution and habitat loss from incremental development, poorly supervised by the county, did them in.

But brown trout, slightly less sensitive than brookies, still hang on. Dipping Pond Run’s few miles remain the last refuge of wild trout in the sprawling Jones Falls drainage. The stream, trickling through the Green Spring Valley, remains one of the cleanest waters feeding the troubled lower Jones Falls and Baltimore’s harbor, both targets of expensive water-quality restoration efforts.

So, it was a happier trip I made there in 2013. Vicki Almond, the Baltimore County councilwoman who represents the communities around the run, had courageously nixed all but nine lots of a more than 100-lot development proposed by Cignal Corp. on the grounds of the old Chestnut Ridge Country Club. Development by then had spread to cover 7 percent of the watershed. Any more, and significant degradation is inevitable.

I spoke that night at a community gathering where the Democratic councilwoman was honored for her efforts. She left no doubt that she, after reviewing the science, walking the Run and talking to the surrounding communities, had concluded that much further development would be ruinous.

But in 2016, Ms. Almond sent an email to constituents. She was reversing herself and upping Cignal’s zoning to 40 lots. The email talked about a need to finally settle the matter — Cignal had sued to overturn the downzoning.

The developer, though, had lost that case at every level but Maryland’s top court, where county attorney Peter Zimmerman said, “we’re confident we would have won there, too.”

Now, the future looks troutless.

“Castanea,” from the Latin for the long-vanished American chestnut tree, will be the name of Cignal’s gated new development for about 40 owners who can afford a million dollars for a lot. “The most elegant community Baltimore county has ever seen,” promises an investor with Cignal.

Trout won’t be Castanea’s only adverse fallout. That area of the county is already suffering gridlock at several intersections that get a “failed” classification from highway departments. Steep slopes along the run guarantee more sediment pollution. In addition, finding enough water for new wells is already a problem. “It’s just a horrible place to add more development,” said Teresa Moore, head of the local Valleys Planning Council.

Almond’s email touted a “covenant” she had negotiated with Cignal, limiting the developer to some 40 lots, versus the 100-plus that are theoretically possible.

But knowledgeable people with whom I spoke, including a former county planner, agreed that 40 lots was about all Cignal could build anyway, given steep slopes, septic, stormwater and other requirements. “I think 40 is really about the ‘carrying capacity’ of that property,” Moore said.

Almond’s seeming change of heart has a simple explanation, alleges lawyer Howard H. “Howdy” Burns, a Dipping Pond Run resident and longtime activist for keeping the stream at trout quality. “Vicki’s running for county executive (in 2018), and she decided she needed the kind of money the big developers can raise,” he said.

Almond adamantly denies the charge.

“I am not on the take. I have stood up to developers my whole career,” she said. Her original downzoning was “to force the developer to listen, and they did.”

The issue, no matter what the courts ruled, “wasn’t going to go away,” she said. Her upzoning to 40 lots was a compromise that “was a victory for the community and the developer,” she said.

Others don’t see it that way.

“Developers have always had the keys to Baltimore County — it’s a pay-to-play system here,” said state Sen. Jim Brochin, who represents part of the county.

He said that he plans to announce his own bid for county executive, “and here’s my platform. I think Baltimore County is overdeveloped, and someone’s gotta say: ‘Enough.’ I believe 2018 should be a referendum here on overdevelopment. If you think places like Dipping Pond Run should remain intact, that’s my race.”

Perhaps the real tragedy of Dipping Pond Run and its trout is that it’s all too typical of a county where developers have set the political agenda for decades.

If trout in a stream is a powerful synecdoche, so is their absence.

About Tom Horton

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

Read more articles by Tom Horton


By submitting a comment, you are consenting to these Rules of Conduct. Thank you for your civil participation. Please note: reader comments do not represent the position of Chesapeake Media Service.

Mike Burke on March 06, 2017:

Howard County is making a major change in how it finances campaigns. With a voter-approved referendum already secured, the details of public financing are now being developed. The vanishing trout of Dipping Pond Run underline the need for taking special interest money out of County races. Montgomery County has already done so. Baltimore County should follow suit.

Deirdre Smith on March 08, 2017:

Thank you Tom for this article. We live alongside this stream where nothing has changed for 100 years, and see the effects of development upstream every day. The stream runs into the Jones Falls which runs into the Bay. I am sorely disappointed at Council woman Almond's decision to turn her back on the community that has been so supportive and worked so hard to prevent this development. Her decision boggles the mind. Just down the road from this development we have three failed intersections. I thought there was a county law that prevents development within the vicinity of such gridlock. Our laws preventing sprawl are not clear or strong enough.

Ben Schapiro on March 08, 2017:

Kudos to Tom Horton for writing this most important piece on the impact of development in Baltimore County on our environment. If one believes that the addition of 31 lots to the former Chestnut Ridge Country Club property will tax the Dipping Pond Run and the failed intersections, just think about the unbelievable impact from the Grace Church proposal to build a 75,000 square foot building with parking for over 50 cars and lots of daily activity on Seminary Avenue. The same County Counsel people who represent us (Almond and Kach) approved this! Can you imagine what will be next with one of them as County Executive?

douglas carroll on March 08, 2017:

it seems the only game in baltimore county is development of land. There is big money in it, but soon , as a result of poor planning enforcement,and worsening quality of life, there will be no game at all. Just a large housing development with a lot of traffic , sparse public land, and overcrowded schools. It was once the most beautiful of places; I would know. douglas carroll

John Olszewski Jr. on March 11, 2017:

To Mike Burke's point- I've already called for such a public system in Baltimore County (see the Jan 12th Baltimore Sun article, below) and am committed to making it happen here. "John Olszewski Jr. of Dundalk, a former state delegate also considering a run, said a better option is to set up a publicly funded campaign finance system, which he says would better address the issue of special interests pouring money into campaigns."

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