Floating Wetland, Annapolis Meeting

I was recently given the pleasure of an invitation to a meeting regarding the Floating Wetlands project (see: An Intriguing New Concept in Water Quality Remediation: Floating Wetlands)  in the Baltimore Harbor. Held in the  Environmental Matters Committee room of the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis, those in attendance included Delegate Hammen; Delegate McIntosh, Chair of the Environmental Matters Committee; Phil Lee, presenter and project manager from Moffatt & Nichol; Dan Naor, owner of the Baltimore Marine Centers (BMC) site; Baltimore City Planning Department Planning Director, Tom Stosur, and planner, Jill Lemke; Jay Sakai, MDE Water Management Director; Scott Raymond of Living Classrooms; a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers; as well as representatives from Moffatt & Nichol, the Baltimore Aquarium, and Baltimore Marine Centers, among many others.

It was a terrific experience for me, and the first time I’ve attended any truly official legislative meeting regarding a proposal of this scale. The meeting was intended to present the project at its current stage, and discuss the next steps. The Harborview Floating Wetland proposal has been held up for some time now. Conceiving the idea in 2010, after a few local organizations launched small scale floating wetlands, Dan Naor has been working with Phil Lee and a team of individuals pushing for the approval of a 1.6 acre floating wetland to be constructed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It’s been caught up in the bureaucracy of development- issues mostly concerned with the proposed piers and platforms. To learn more about the struggles, you can see a portion of my 15 page report on Baltimore water quality describing the BMC Wetlands in my December 31st post.

The conversations I overheard this afternoon reflect that the platforms continue to be the primary concern, but that a few additional steps will ensure the project moves forward shortly. The officials, who make decisions based on existing regulations, have determined the platforms, in this case, to be non water-dependent (for their educational and recreational potential, I personally find them to serve purely water-dependent uses!).  In his presentation, Lee brought up a great and very interesting point: across the Harbor, between piers 3 and 4 (one of the most tourist-y spots in the Inner Harbor), you’ll find a total of 3 floating platforms. Their use? Restaurant seating. Now how is restaurant seating water dependent? Those tables could very well be located on land; it’s not like the water is needed below in order for the food to be served or consumed. Using Google Earth to estimate the size of each, I would guess the three are covering approximately 8,700 square feet of water. Yet, the piers and platforms proposed in the BMC Wetland, which is without a doubt more water-dependent than restaurant seating, is getting so much grief! To an outside individual, it seems absurd that something so trivial would be debated; and even more frustrating is the matter when you learn that the site owner could just as easily abandon the wetland project and get approval to put in an additional 50 slips.

To be fair, some good arguments were made by those who originally questioned the platform elements. Representatives who spoke on behalf of the Baltimore City Department of Planning, MDE, and the Army Corps of Engineers had all expressed their support for this project. Some went so far as to say that, although their job is to remain neutral- neither an opponent mor proponent- they were actually quite “excited” about this proposal. The issue, alas, is the bureaucracy of it all. Every project has to go through the hoops, meeting all the requirements, with absolutely everything checking out.  The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, have to recognize that the site is within navigable waters, and the project must thus undergo a number of analyses before it can be approved. I thought it was a smart statement (although still just an excuse for all the red tape) that the representative made when he justified all the minor annoying details of the process by saying the end result would be a plan or permit that was “bulletproof.” It takes a while, but when all’s said and done, the proposal cannot be knocked down.

The fact, right now, is that neither the Corps nor MDE have seen the numbers and figures which justify the proposed size and square footage of the platforms and piers. Should they receive these numbers soon, the representative of the Corps suggested this proposal could be nearing the end of its process in the next 1 to 2 weeks. The end is in sight!?

Now, as it turns out, the definition of “water-dependent” is also set by regulatory standards, or so I understand. I’m guessing (rather cynically, I suppose) that these standards must define “water-dependent” uses as those which generate some form of measurable revenue- including touristy restaurants? If only we could prove how revenue will increase as a result of this project. Well, actually, the team was awaiting assistance from Tom Noonan of Baltimore’s Office of Tourism to help produce foot traffic numbers. Perhaps Noonan might also help to project the future economic impact…

Everyone promised the project team that the three restaurant platforms, which popped up of the course of a few years, went through the same processes. I’m curious to know, however, if it took them as long?  Again, I’m being cynical. To sum it all up, though, I think great arguments were made by both sides. For whatever reason, the figures used to determine the platform sizes never made it into the Corps hands- in addition to a few other documents, actually. Until this missing information is shared, the project can’t progress. On the other hand, I think Phil Lee used brilliant analogies and comparisons to make his point. You wouldn’t put a wall up around a park, and you shouldn’t restrict the educational element of this wetland to the shore (where a pedestrian promenade would actually not allow that from happening in the first place). For every issue, Lee and the team had an appropriate response. It appears all the necessary studies have been conducted, and the missing results are all that’s preventing this proposal from finally getting through.

I learned a few other interesting things during the meeting. First, I found out about a large floating wetland in Singapore which opened in 2010, the Senkang Floating Wetland. To be honest, I haven’t done much floating wetland research outside of Baltimore. Actually, I’ve done none! But this project is a great comparison, and as you can see from the image below, it shows what a great educational resource a floating wetland can be! You can click on the photo to be directed to a short description of the wetland. And lastly, I learned of a Maryland company- Maryland Aquatic Nurseries- working on a floating wetland product! A representative was present, and I predict they’ll be involved in the BMC Wetland project down the road.

But what was the most important thing I took away from this afternoon’s meeting? The future of floating wetlands in Baltimore looks quite promising, and not too far away on the horizon!

Senkang Floating Wetland

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