Shades of Green

Saving the Planet Touches Almost Every Area of Frederick County Living, and it Comes with a Price Tag

By Linda Norris-Waldt | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 09.16.13 – Feature, People & Places

Save the Bay. Buy recycled. Reduce your carbon footprint. Conserve water. The list goes on and on.

And so does the number of programs and projects that aim to improve Frederick County’s environment— and with them, the debate about where lies the responsibility: Who pays, who is inconvenienced by change, and how much habit-breaking is practical when the returns aren’t immediately evident.

A myriad of regulations, public education programs and businesses have brought environmental initiatives to our doors. The new programs, like mandating rain barrels and rain gardens for new subdivisions, roll in with great fanfare like ocean waves, supported by public demand. And then they are either delayed or abridged because of cost, impact or feasibility. A constant rebalancing is always taking place.

Kirby Delauter, a Frederick County commissioner whose work in construction takes him into the field where he has direct encounters with environmental regulations, has been no fan of the feasibility of government programs regulating the environment.

They have “grown exponentially and for no good reason other than to expand the role of government in our lives,” he says. “Stormwater has been ruled by courts to not be a pollutant, yet we still seem to have governing bodies that can’t let go of the power and control of regulating the lives of personal property owners.”

Kai Hagen, a community activist and former county commissioner known for championing environmental causes, has a differing view.

“If people knew the real environmental and economic costs and benefits associated with the choices we make—as a community—I’m convinced we would be making a lot more responsible choices than we are now,” he says.

Here’s how current environmental programs in Frederick County touch water, land and lives.

A Cleaner Flush

Though it has been decades since the public lens turned on the Chesapeake bay, the “curing” of the bay’s ills continues to challenge its neighbors and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. For obvious reasons, Maryland has been what some might call the bay’s “noisiest” neighbor, generating new laws and regulations each year, even if nudged by the federal government. Local governments and others directly affected by the measures complain there is an ever-moving target and the regulations hit all the contributors: homeowners with lawn fertilizer, wastewater treatment and septic; businesses and construction with stormwater; and farmers with animal waste, pesticide/herbicides.

This year, for example, county engineers expect to wrap up the 15 million gallon-per-day Ballenger-McKinney Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrade, at a total projected cost of $129.7 million. Of that, $32.2 million is coming from the Bay Restoration Fund, otherwise known as the “flush” tax, a $60-per-year levy on all septic owners in the state, except in parts of Garrett and Allegany counties that do not drain into the bay. The rest of the plant’s upgrades are being picked up by a state loan fund and Frederick city, which uses a portion of the plant’s capacity.

While the upgrades are to reduce the amount of nitrates and phosphorous draining into the bay, centralizing Frederick County’s water treatment at Ballenger allowed the shutdown of a number of older, less-efficient plants whose flows were piped there. In addition, bay restoration tax revenues have paid for improvements to water treatment in Brunswick, Thurmont and Emmitsburg.

“There are a lot fewer wastewater plants in Frederick County now, and the ones that are left are a lot better when it comes to water quality,” says Mark Schweitzer, whose county department oversees the waste-water treatment plant projects. “When it’s all finished, it will be like night and day.”

Funds from the bay tax also help pay for septic system replacement. Homeowners with failing or slow septic systems can apply for the replacements, which use denitrification, a process that changes the microbial mixture in the septic tank so that nitrogen gas is diverted harmlessly into the atmosphere rather than leaching as nitrates into soil and water. The new systems cost between $9,400 and $13,500 to install.

The bay fund has provided money for about 30 replacement systems a year since 2007, for a total of 102 so far. County Environmental Health chief George Keller says funding for the coming year is improving and that 36 replacement systems will be completed by July 2014.

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

It stands to reason—and many kids’ science fair projects hypothesize it—that rainwater pelting down on asphalt and shingled roofs is a “stormwater superhighway,” as some environmental advocates have called it. Numerous Maryland laws and regulations have been added to address the issue, the latest of which earned the inglorious name “rain tax,” officially known as the Stormwater Utility Fee, which nine Maryland counties that drain into the Chesapeake Bay were required to institute to pay for stormwater reduction projects. In protest of the fee, Frederick County chose to impose a 1-cent-per-property fee on the 48,250 residences that fall under the tax. The total collection will be $482.50.

However, according to Shannon Moore, director of Frederick County’s Office of Sustainability, even before the rain tax was passed this year, county taxpayers were already paying for federal Clean Water Act stormwater requirements that address many of the same issues with runoff. Those requirements are enforced through federal permits the county must gain to discharge into local waters.

The permits require the county government to: determine how pollution discharged into local waterways will stay within acceptable limits for the Chesapeake Bay; treat 20 percent of the runoff from poorly drained areas; upgrade wastewater treatment facilities; and regulate stormwater management activities, among other guidelines.

The federal permit is mandatory, and its cost is growing. During the past decade, Frederick County has paid an average of $2.4 million a year to maintain the permit, a pricetag that will jump to $3.5 million in 2014 and $4.5 million in 2015. Beyond that, get ready for sticker shock, as costs skyrocket to cover additional work and programs to limit runoff into the bay. “We anticipate the next permit will cost $112 million, which would be around $22.4 million per year [for the county to pay],” Moore says.

Bio-Retention and Stream Cleanup

Heather Montgomery is too gentle and lovely to double as Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, but it’s clear she speaks for the trees. On a tour of Windsor Knoll’s Middle School’s “no-mow” stream restoration project, the county’s community restoration coordinator is passionate about the many benefits the 15-acre reforestation project to the Pleasant Branch of the Bennett Creek watershed. It’s another project designed to decrease pollution runoff into local waterways. “This is wonderful for the school; it’s seven acres they don’t need to mow now, and look at it,” she says, waving her arm in the direction of a hillside studded with pin oak, red oak, dogwood, redbud and native species. Water testing is showing some growing clarity in the stream, which was once found to be one of Frederick County’s at-risk streams for wildlife. And there are other benefits, she says. “It improves the aesthetics of the school grounds. It provides math and study area for the students. Birds that were native to that area have returned, and we have seen frogs come back that weren’t here when we began the project” in 2006, she says.

Frederick County Public Schools managers see numerous benefits of the program called “20 by 2038”—referring to a Potomac Conservancy challenge for local school districts to increase their tree canopies 20 percent by the year 2038. The program currently has 21 county schools taking part, with projects ranging from .25 to 15 acres. “By returning these spaces back into natural habitats, we are supporting various species of wildlife and creating a learning environment for our students to view and study,” says Gary Barkdoll, manager of FCPS central maintenance. “To FCPS and the taxpayers, we are currently saving 40 acres per year from mowing”—an annual savings of $10,240. Just at Windsor Knolls, he says, $3,840 is saved every year since the trees were planted.

This Land Is Your Land

Recycling and solid waste reduction are some of the most visible environmental activities to tackle the environmental impact of living on Frederick County’s land. Keeping stuff from being buried in a landfill has come a long way from the days of merely recycling cans, bottles and newspapers that people remember from the 1970s and ’80s. Frederick County officials and private contractors have designed programs for people to recycle a broad range of products when they are working, learning and at home.

The new programs—followed by population growth—have resulted in a slow-but-steady decrease in the rate of trash generated in Frederick County over the years. Meanwhile, the recycling rate has climbed steadily from 41.32 percent in 2007 to 44.78 percent in 2011, the last year official data is available. The county’s goal is 60 percent.

In 2009, Frederick County changed the recycling collection system to allow residents to mix all recyclable items in one bin, known as a “single-stream” system, rather than keeping paper separate from cans and bottles. The change included a rollout of new, larger carts—growing the recycling rate 3 percentage points in its first full year after the change.

Annmarie Creamer, recycling outreach program coordinator, says commercial recycling is provided in Frederick County by allowing materials to be dumped at the Reichs Ford Road Recycling Center. The advantage for business owners is a $25-per-ton fee for recyclables, compared to $69 per ton for trash.ShadesGreen2

Clym Recycling, a Frederick-based recycling collection company, has customers who see the financial benefit, but sees the potential for more. “It’s a learning curve, understanding that it costs less if you carve out recyclables from your waste stream,” says Charlie Powell. He and a partner started Clym Recycling 15 years ago, first as an outlet for bio-science firms that needed help managing their lab waste. But they began to see other easily recovered materials in the labs and have since succeeded in getting approval to integrate unusual items like glass pipettes and other lab recyclables into Frederick County’s program.

Another commercial sector targeted for recycling and reduction is multifamily recycling. Ricardo Samuel, a retiree who is president of the Board of Directors of Ridgeview III, a condo community near the Old Farm development west of Frederick, takes his community’s responsibility to reduce waste seriously. Residents turned to him in 2009 when the nearby Rosemont Avenue Dropoff Center in Frederick was closed down as part of a Frederick County cost-saving plan. Residents suddenly had nowhere to take their recyclables because curbside collection is not provided to multifamily complexes.

“This came from the residents,” he says of the recycling-designated collection bin in one of the five trash corrals at the 72-apartment complex. “They wanted somewhere to be able to recycle.”

Property Management People, the company managing the community, responded by providing weekly pickup at the recycling units. Residents carry their recyclables down to the corrals—but often people do not follow directions, especially when they are confused because the recycling bin is the same green color as the trash bin, Samuel says. “Sometimes it’s a mess, and sometimes people are lazy and don’t put things where they should; I’ve almost become a patrol officer. It would certainly help if they could just spray the recycling can a different color.”

Apathy can be a challenge because residents aren’t required to recycle, he says. “Some people say, ‘We don’t have to,’ but we say, ‘It would be best for you and your kids in the future.’”

All of Frederick County’s recycling efforts are adding up. The waste stream grew from 242,533 tons in 2010 to 258,892 tons in 2011 and the recycling rate kept up at 44.30 percent and 44.78 percent, respectively, says Creamer. The commercial sector’s recycling rate grew from 69,236 tons to 77,900 tons, nearly 13 percent, during that time.

The Energy to Change

Dave Barrow and his wife Jan, have been a willing “poster family” for Frederick County’s Sustainability Office for years. They are evangelists for what people can do personally to not only help the world become a little greener, but to keep their bottom line a little greener.

When they built their home, they prescribed a two-foot roof overhang, at a cost of $2,000, compared to the standard one-foot ledge, to reduce the effect of the afternoon sun and lower energy bills. Their next step was to invest in geothermal energy, a system they say paid off for them in three years as well as being quiet and comfortable because of a more even heating and cooling rate.

Financially, Dave Barrow concedes that federal and state energy incentives are what made him take a look at geothermal systems, but that the payoff would have come even without the government support. The 1,000-gallon propane bill they had before installing geothermal has been cut to 100 gallons per year—used just to heat their grill. Total heating and air conditioning costs have decreased by 25 percent, they say.

A 94-panel solar array was their next step, producing 16.9 kilowatts of electricity per hour. Add to that the various energy-efficient measures throughout the home—such as improved insulation and LED lighting—and their electric bill has been decreased to $80 per year.

Many of their adjustments came as a direct result of an energy audit they had of their home in the early 2000s, when they were still hard to find and costly. The couple recommends that as a first step for anyone wanting to dip their toe into environmental initiatives in their home; they can now be done as inexpensively as $100 and produce a range of costly and inexpensive adjustments homeowners can make.

“I firmly believe we [in the community] have to do this. When I grew up, things—the horizon—were crystal clear. Now you can’t see the mountains on a hazy summer day,” he says, pointing to the backdrop of his Myersville home. “We destroyed the planet in our lifetime, so we can fix it for our kids. This is doable.”

Whose Job is it?

It’s hard to prioritize the return on investment from all the environmental work underway in Frederick County, says Moore of the Office of Sustainability. “Large projects, like road retrofits and wastewater treatment plants obviously give us the biggest bang for the buck,” she says, in that they can address problems on a wide scale and at many levels. “And we are concerned to make sure we are spending money efficiently when it comes to these issues.”

But work by all the contributors to environmental problems, from individual homeowners curbing energy or pesticide use, to corporations recycling, changing agricultural and construction practices—are critical. “There’s no one solution to these things,” she says. “It takes coming at it from every direction.”