County consults public as planning for Bird River dredging continues

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This image, courtesy of Baltimore County EPS, shows where maintenance work will be done for the channel, including the proposed new sections for residents at the ends of Stumpfs and Bird River Grove roads. Channel sections delineated but not colored have been determined to be deep enough without needing much, if any, re-dredging.
(Updated 3/28/18)

- By Devin Crum -

Representatives from Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability held a public meeting Thursday, March 22, to give residents more information about the upcoming maintenance dredge of Bird River, planned to begin next year.

Although the meeting was geared toward bringing those property owners into the fold who wish to have spurs dredged to their piers or boat ramps, residents took the opportunity to gather more information on the project and express their concerns.

First announced in April 2017, the county plans to use $4.5 million - including $1.745 million from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Waterway Improvement Fund and the balance coming from county bond sales - to perform a maintenance dredge of the Bird River boating channel. The channel was last dredged between 2002 and 2004, and the new project is based on what was done then.

“That was 25,000 linear feet of dredging,” said Chris Rager of Bay Land Consultants which is helping to design the project. “It ran all the way from [where Bird River meets the Gunpowder River] all the way to the headwaters and down into Railroad Creek.”

The dredged depth for the main channel from the Gunpowder to the mouth of Railroad Creek and west to the Stumpfs Marsh area will be taken to 4.5 feet at average low tide, Rager said. Inside Railroad Creek and above Stumpfs Marsh, channel depth will be between 3.5 and four feet. Private spurs will also have that depth.

While a survey showed that many areas of the main channel are already at or near the target depth, Rager said, “most of these areas that were previously dredged closer to homes are going to be dredged again.”

Two new potential channel sections are also included in the plan in response to concerns from some property owners who would otherwise be a significant distance from the channel.

Peter Terry, a resident of Stumpfs Road, said last April that a spur from his pier to the channel on the far side of the river would have cost him $70,000. And he was concerned that it would fill in with sediment far sooner than the 10-year loan for the work would be paid off.

One new channel section would be cut in the upper river going southeast from the southern channel toward the end of Bird River Grove Road. The other would reach west from the main channel just below Stumpfs Marsh toward the end of Stumpfs Road.

The main channel will be about 50 feet at its widest near the mouth of the river, tapering down to about 30 feet in the headwaters areas, according to Rager. And the spurs will be a minimum of 20 feet wide.

David Riter, EPS’ Waterway Restoration Program supervisor, said barring any hiccups they should be dredging as soon as the work window opens in October 2019.

Due to environmental regulations, work is restricted to the time between October and February so as not to interfere with any fish spawning.

“It will probably take two years to complete like it did last time because of the time-of-year restrictions and just the linear size of the channel,” Riter said.

Riter and Rager said the Bird River project is unique in that it has its own “dedicated” dredge material placement site (DMP) where the sediment taken from the channels will be deposited. The facility is located on Bowerman Road in White Marsh, behind the Eastern Sanitary Landfill and close to the river.

The Bird River DMP was used during the 2002-2004 dredging as well, but this is the last project it will accommodate, Riter said.

“We’re actually having to remove material [from the facility] now to make room,” he said.

“It needs some clearing, it needs some material capacity creation and that project for the DMP site is currently running with our permitting process as we stand now,” Rager added.

Riter told the East County Times the facility has about 91,000 cubic yards of capacity remaining, and they anticipate generating about 75,000 cubic yards of material through the 2019 project.

“One would think that we have sufficient capacity, but because the hydraulically placed dredge material is greater than 90 percent water, we must have twice the placement capacity at the DMP,” he said. “As such, we need to excavate between 15,000 and 19,000 cubic yards of material from the DMP and sequence the construction over a two-year period. Once the DMP has been prepared we’ll have 110,000 cubic yards [of space].”

Riter explained that the first year of dredging will generate about 40,000 of material, for which they will need 80,000 cubic yards of space in the DMP. The dredge material will then dewater and consolidate during the eight months from February to October when work is prohibited, he said.

“When dredging resumes, we will have 70,000 cubic yards of capacity at the DMP to place the remaining 35,000 cubic yards of dredge material,” Riter continued. “At the conclusion of the project, the DMP will be near capacity.”

He said the material being removed from the facility to make room, provided no contaminants are found after testing, will be excavated and taken to an approved location to be reused as fill, cover or some other type of “innovative reuse” to be determined.

For those residents interested in spurs to connect from their piers or boat ramps to the channel, the county is offering 10-year, interest-free loans assessed as a lien on the property. EPS held one public workshop on Wednesday, March 28, to help residents through the process of applying for a spur, and they will hold another at Eastern Regional Park in Middle River from 5 - 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 29 for that purpose.

Applications for spurs must be received by May 11 so that the county can submit its overall project application to the state by June 1. But Riter stressed that property owners are under no financial obligation until the price of their spur channel is known - after the job is bid - and a spur loan agreement has been signed.

Riter noted that each spur will have its own cost and the average cost is $75 per cubic yard of material.

“So the more you dig, the more material you generate, the more expensive your spur is going to be,” he said.

Some residents have lamented that following the last dredging project, their spurs filled in with new sediment after just a few years.

Riter confirmed that even if a spur fills back in before the loan period ends, those property owners will still be responsible for paying off the loan. Though, he acknowledged that the Bird River “sometimes looks like chocolate milk” after a heavy rainfall due to sediment flowing in from upstream in the watershed.

“I’d like to think that the efforts that have been undertaken [upstream] will reduce the sediment in the waterway” and the channels will not fill back in as quickly, he said. “But there’s also channel dynamics out there. When the drainage from White Marsh Run leaves that narrow stream and hits that broad body of water, it slows down and the sediment drops out of it. It’s a problem.”

He also said there is no plan to remove the non-native hydrilla vegetation that can tangle boat propellers except what is removed incidentally via dredging.

Rager added that large storms can degrade the channel. “But our recommendation is to boat in the channel,” he said. “All of you boat in the same channel and it keeps the channel open.

“Stagnant water makes it easier to fill in,” he said. “If you guys are constantly using the channel, [that will not happen].” read more

Dundalk food bank up and running at Tradepoint Atlantic

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(Updated 3/28/18)

- By Marge Neal -

The Dundalk food bank organized by Laughing Wolfe Resources tried out its new home at Tradepoint Atlantic on Monday, March 26, and by all accounts, it seems to be a good fit.

The food bank used the Steelworkers Local 9477 union hall on Dundalk Avenue from its inception in 2012 until January, when the hall was sold and organizers were told to find another location.

Upon hearing the food bank was being displaced, officials at Tradepoint - the owner of the former Bethlehem Steel property in Sparrows Point - offered space on its campus. After all the i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed by all partnering entities, the food bank was given the green light to proceed.

“Today is just a trial run to get a feel for the space,” food bank coordinator Melody Elste said Monday as she assisted with food distribution, coordinated volunteers and chatted with folks using the well-appreciated resource. “This is probably only about half the food we usually give out, but we didn’t know how many people to expect and we have to get a system down in this new space.”

About 25 volunteers were on hand to direct traffic on the parking lot, sign people in, staff tables loaded with food ranging from fresh produce and poultry to boxed mixes and canned goods, answer questions and restock food on the distribution tables as needed.

“The group of volunteers we have is just unbelievable,” Elste said as her “right-hand man,” Steve Stephens, nodded in agreement. “They just showed up this morning and we do what we do - we made it happen.”

Aaron Tomarchio, Tradepoint’s vice president of corporate affairs, said he thought the event was “extremely well-run” and lauded the volunteers for their efforts.

The Fitzell Room “worked perfectly” for the mission, he said, and noted any inconvenience to employees was minimal.

“With this being held two times a month, we can handle it,” he said. “And as a result of just the first meeting, one of our employees’ mother wants to volunteer.”

Just one distribution date was scheduled for March, but Elste said the pantry will be open April 9 and 23, and hopes to maintain a twice-a-month distribution thereafter. The food distribution will take place in the Fitzell Room of Tradepoint’s main office building.

Quite a bit of work was required before doors could opened to clients, according to Elste. While the food bank officially opens at noon, volunteers reported at 7:30 a.m. Plastic tarps were put down to protect the room’s carpet and a truckload of food had to be unloaded. Tables had to be set up and volunteers needed to unload boxes and crates and transfer food to the table for easy distribution.

While that work was being done inside, clients began to line up outside, many toting wagons and wire carts, or carrying boxes or reusable bags.

The advertised hours are noon to 3 p.m., but Elste said they will open the doors as soon as all the work is done and volunteers are ready to go. On Monday, folks were signing in by 11:30 a.m.

“We’re not going to make people wait outside if we’re ready to go,” Elste said.

Many of the core volunteers, including Steve Pomeroy

and Bob Price, have been a part of the team since the food bank was created in 2012. On Monday, the two men were the keepers of the grapes, handing out bags of the fruit to those who wanted them and reloading from a nearby stack of boxes.

From the grape table, clients made their way around a wide, U-shaped display where they could collect apples, salad greens, white and sweet potatoes and other fresh produce, boxed macaroni and cheese, pancake mix and syrup, and a variety of canned vegetables before getting to the last tables loaded with unexpected treats: potato chips and two-liter bottles of soda.

“National Beverage gave us a large donation,” Elste said of the soda offering. “And they reached out to me. I didn’t contact them.”

The organizer said she hopes the relationship with National is long-term: “I’m hoping that when they have extra, they’ll contact us,” she said.

When the dust had settled on Monday’s distribution, about 280 people claimed nearly 8,000 pounds of food, according to Elste.

“We actually closed a little early because we ran out of most of the food,” she said Tuesday. “We just had some grapes, apples and nectarines left over.”

Elste said she sees the relationship between Laughing Wolfe Resources and Tradepoint as a lasting one, and said volunteers were excited about the new venue.

“It went very well, considering it was our first time at a new place,” Elste said. “We’ll continue to work out our system and it will just get better.”

The energetic organizer already has several ideas to improve the service, including the possibility of being able to provide pet food for those struggling to keep their family pets fed and partnering with another group to perhaps offer a weekend distribution for working people who cannot make it to a weekday distribution.

“The community has a lot of working poor who just can’t come out at noon on a Monday to get food,” she said. “We’re going to see if we can do something about that.”

Tomarchio agreed that the potential for a longstanding partnership exists.

“This just absolutely makes sense to us, given the history of the property and the difficult times that left families in need,” he said. “If we can do something to turn that around like we’re turning this place around, it all the better fits our mission and we’re happy to do it.” read more

SEAC receives update on local school construction projects

(Updated 3/28/18)

- By Patrick Taylor -

At the Southeast Education Advisory Council meeting at Patapsco High School on Monday night, March 26, Leslie Lazzeri, who works in the Office of Facilities Management, told council members that most of the projects scheduled or underway in the southeast area are on track.

That would normally suggest an uneventful meeting, but Jackie Brewster, chair of the SEAC, delivered a sharp message to Lazzeri - they are not happy with the renovations at Patapscho High School and Center for the Arts, which are slated to finish in August 2019.

“We don’t really like what’s going on here,” said Brewster.

Brewster recounted to Lazzeri, who was filling in for OFM Executive Director Pradeep Dixit, her issues with the project, mainly that the renovation will not provide overcrowding relief. She noted that there have been overcrowding concerns for decades, and that in 2009 she was informed by a builder that the best course of action would be to construct a new school. Instead of allocating funding to Patapsco, however, funding went to George Washington Carver.

Fast forward to present day, and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s announcement that he would be including funding in the upcoming budget for the planning of a new Dulaney High School has Brewster and the other members of the SEAC feeling like they did almost a decade ago.

“It’s happening to us all over again,” said Brewster.

Lazzeri told the SEAC that just because they were getting a renovation, that would not preclude them from receiving money for an addition later down the line.

SEAC members also took issue with changes made to the classrooms that have already been renovated at Patapsco. Issues ranged from smaller classrooms to only having a single door, which members believe poses a safety issue as well as a traffic flow issue. Students will not be able to enter as others are leaving, leading to hallway backups. They commented that it did not seem like the architects who designed the school took student flow under consideration. Later, they took Lazzeri on a tour of one of the new classrooms for her to take photographs.

While the latter half of the meeting focused on Patapsco, the first portion of the meeting was aimed at providing an update on construction projects around the area.

Lazzeri told the SEAC that she expects an announcement to come out in the next week formally announcing a groundbreaking ceremony for Dundalk Elementary, which is scheduled for completion in August 2019.

Colgate and Berkshire elementary schools are also on schedule for 2020 openings, though the students at Colgate will be relocated to the Rosedale Center for two years while demolition and construction take place.

Because of the size of Colgate’s property, relocation is necessary. The Rosedale Center currently hosts Victory Villa students while their new building is completed. The logistics of the move are still being worked out, but they are expected to be finalized in the coming weeks, according to Lazzeri.

Elsewhere, the roof replacement at Chesapeake High School is almost complete, while Mars Estates Elementary and Kenwood High School will finish their air conditioning projects in the near future.

‘Perennial’ Broening Highway toll bill heard in Annapolis

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Southbound (Inner loop) traffic must first pass through the toll plaza and pay the toll for the Key Bridge before exiting to Broening Highway, even though they would not cross the bridge. Photo by Devin Crum.
(Updated 3/28/18)

- By Devin Crum -

For the third time, state Senator Johnny Ray Salling (R-6) has introduced a bill that would eliminate what is known as the Broening Highway toll on I-695.

Inner loop traffic on I-695 must travel through the Francis Scott Key Bridge toll plaza before it can exit to Broening Highway. The same is true for those traveling from Broening Highway to I-695’s outer loop. This creates a toll for using Broening Highway even though that traffic does not cross the bridge.

Salling’s bill would see the Maryland Transportation Authority install a jersey barrier to separate that traffic from vehicles that do cross the bridge and not charge those drivers the toll fee.

Salling said the bill is especially important with the growth of the Port of Baltimore and Tradepoint Atlantic at Sparrows Point because many commercial truckers traveling to or from those facilities attempt to avoid the toll by using neighborhood streets.

“It causes really bad, permanent wear [on the streets], and it stresses some of the county areas for financing” to repair the damage, the senator said during the bill’s hearing before the Senate Finance Committee in Annapolis on March 14.

Safety is also an issue, he said, because “trucks are very large and very heavy and they take longer to stop. They’re traveling by homes, by schools and should not be on our residential streets.”

Salling acknowledged that the state stands to lose an estimated $291,000 per year by not making the Broening Highway users pay the fee. He pointed out, though, that that is less than when MdTA lowered the toll rate for EZPass users at the facility.

In addition, MdTA would have to spend $3.5 million to construct the jersey barrier, according to the bill’s fiscal analysis.

He added that $291,000 is a lot of money for small and independent trucking businesses to have to pay, especially when not actually using the bridge.

“Eliminating the tolls for trucks that do not cross over the bridge would be the fair thing to do,” Salling said. “We can save companies and truck drivers from unnecessary expenses, we need to protect our roads from unnecessary wear and, more than anything, we need to protect our kids near the schools.”

Committee chairman Thomas “Mac” Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, said the committee was sympathetic to the concerns about the large trucks going through communities when it heard the bill in 2017. But the testimony from MdTA representatives was that they were looking to develop a long-term solution.

Salling said, though, that he has not heard any specifics from the agency about their plans.

“We really haven’t gotten answers,” he said. “We know what’s happening at the port, and we know what’s going to be happening at Tradepoint Atlantic.”

Tradepoint Atlantic is undergoing the largest industrial redevelopment on the east coast - possibly in the nation - at the 3,000-acre former steel mill at Sparrows Point. And the Port of Baltimore has experienced record growth in recent years, particularly with respect to the amount of cargo moving through the facility.

“You’re talking within five to six years you’re going to have 20,000 jobs,
there are going to be trucks, there are going to be vehicles, it’s going to be a lot of commotion and we would like to see how well we can accommodate them,” Salling said.

Lewis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, also testified in support of the bill, stating that he has spoken with MdTA about their intentions, but they have not given great detail.

Campion noted that the authority’s planned conversion to all-electronic tolling would allow them to develop a “more fair and equitable” solution for trucks only traveling to Broening Highway to access TPA and not actually using the Key bridge. “But more detail I think would be a very important thing,” he said.

He said he appreciated Salling continuing to introduce the bill “because it is a big challenge - it is a neighborhood challenge because there’s only one local route that doesn’t require a toll if you want to access Tradepoint Atlantic from the Port of Baltimore, and that route actually does go down an expressway where there is a school.”

While no one testified against the bill, the committee also did not offer much reason for optimism.

Chairman Middleton simply called the legislation a “perennial bill.”

“I applaud you for not giving up,” he told Salling.

Salling told the East County Times that the bill has never made it out of committee, but he has been working with the Finance Committee’s members to try to get it voted on and passed for an eventual floor vote.

“It’s still in question, but I’m hoping we can get it out of committee,” he said.

If the bill does not progress this year, Salling said he will try for a study of the issue in the next session to determine the best way to address it. read more

Public health physician Beilenson sets eyes on school board position

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(Updated 3/28/18)

- By Marge Neal -

Peter Beilenson is well known in the Baltimore metropolitan area for his work as a physician, health commissioner and health insurance administrator.

So his announcement that he is running to represent the Fifth Councilmanic District on the Baltimore County Board of Education might seem a little out of place. But Beilenson sees the scope of his medical background as a perfect fit for the role he seeks on the school board.

“A lot of my work over the years has focused on school-age children,” he said in a phone interview with the East County Times. “Whether I was working on school-based health initiatives, like increasing the amount of vaccinated kids from 60 percent to 99.8 percent and reducing lead poisoning by 94 percent, or advocating for healthy foods in cafeterias, I have a lot of experience in working for school-aged children.”

Beilenson has lived in west Towson for five years and lived in Baltimore city for 25 years before that. He served in the high-profile positions of Baltimore city health commissioner and health officer for Howard County before serving as president and CEO of Evergreen Health, a nonprofit health insurance cooperative which provided both health insurance and health care delivery.

In addition to his extensive medical background, Beilenson also has 42 seasons of youth sports coaching to his credit and teaches at Johns Hopkins University.

The California native moved with his family to Maryland during his senior year in high school, and he graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Montgomery County. He received his undergraduate degree at Harvard College and earned his medical degree at Emory University School of Medicine. Beilenson came to Baltimore to serve his internship in family medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center and decided to stay in the area after completing his residency in preventive medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In running for the county school board, Beilenson said he has three main priorities.

The first is hiring a “first-rate superintendent who will be transparent with staff and parents,” he said, adding that the selection of a new leader for the schools should be undertaken after December when the new board is seated.

Secondly, Beilenson would work to increase the number of professionals working in the system.

“I would decrease class size by hiring more teachers,” he said. “And then I would increase the number of social workers, psychologists and pupil personnel workers so that behavioral problems could be handled outside the classroom and teachers can concentrate on teaching.”

The candidate’s third priority would be to ensure that children are prepared for school, “whether that means kids are ready for kindergarten through universal pre-k or they are prepared to learn in the afternoon of a school day after having a free lunch to fuel them for the rest of the day.”

Beilenson believes many of the experiences of his past positions lend themselves well to what he sees as his work on the school board. He has extensive experience lobbying for funding at the national, state and local levels of government, as well as developing, administering and managing large, nine-figure budgets.

“And perhaps most importantly, I’m used to looking at data before making recommendations or decisions,” he said. “While some people might speak from emotion or other bias, I use facts and data to reach conclusions and offer potential solutions.”

Beilenson also has a personal interest in serving on the school board. He is the father of five children ranging in age from 12 to 32, and his youngest son attends Dumbarton Middle School in Towson.

“I enjoy teaching, I enjoy coaching, I enjoy working with children and I enjoy public service,” he said. “I think serving on the Board of Education is the next logical step in serving my community.” read more

County Council approves PUD resolution for country club property

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This artist's rendering shows the conceptual plan for the Country Club Estates development at Sparrows Point Country Club. The plan shows two entrances on Wise Avenue and one on Grays Road. Image courtesy of Conor Gilligan.
(Updated 3/21/18)

- By Marge Neal -

The Baltimore County Council voted 7-0 Monday night to allow county review of a planned unit development application to build up to 312 homes on Sparrows Point Country Club property.

Submitted to the group by Councilman Todd Crandell (R-7), the application requests permission to build a community to be known as Country Club Estates, to include townhouses, single-family homes and “age-targeted” villas, in three separate neighborhoods totaling about 76 acres of the roughly 271-acre property bordered by Wise Avenue and Grays Road in Dundalk.

“This is an exciting project for the community of Dundalk,” Crandell told his colleagues. “This fits in with a vision that includes re-creation of our job base, which is occurring at Tradepoint Atlantic, the revitalization of our commercial corridors and the improvement of our housing stock.”

Two Dundalk residents, both running for political office, spoke out against the plan.

Dave Rader, a Republican who is hoping to unseat Crandell on the council, said he is concerned that many communities were left out of the communication process as the development of the plan played out, including his own community of Norwood-Holabird.

Dundalk resident Scott Collier, an unaffiliated candidate running for the Sixth District State Senate seat, said he is worried that “our community is over-saturated now” and believes the Dundalk area does not have sufficient open space.

“So I would have rather seen this property turned into some kind of park,” he told the council. “It is in a beautiful location and [we would] have it where it would have access for the community.”

Conor Gilligan, vice president of Craftsmen Developers, said Tuesday he is confident that he communicated with all relevant local community organizations, and even talked with groups farther away if that community’s schools would be affected by the new housing.

Craftsmen has partnered with the country club in this venture. The club did not sell the land outright to Craftsmen and will share equally in risks and profit. In turn, the club’s profit will be reinvested in the club’s amenities, including a new club house and new irrigation system for the golf course, according to club President Ron Belbot.

The club’s membership, and therefore its income, is dwindling, Belbot has said. They see the partnership with Craftsmen as a way to preserve the bulk of the club’s property, as opposed to the real possibility the club could fail financially and be forced to sell the entire parcel for potential development, Belbot told the East County Times in December.

Now that the PUD resolution has been approved, Craftsmen officials will begin the process of submitting a detailed concept plan, according to Gilligan.

To satisfy tougher standards of the PUD, the concept plan has to be more detailed than usual and must include specifics on architectural details, community amenities and landscape and streetscape designs.

The company will also submit an application for growth allocation, which will request permission to convert a resource conservation area (RCA) to an intense development area (IDA).

“In order to change the designation, you need to prove you are bettering the quality of the Chesapeake Bay,” Gilligan said. “This... tract gives us lots of opportunity for reforestation, wetlands enhancement and shoreline improvement that will go a long way to improve the quality of the water.”

He noted that the country club does not have any stormwater management facilities on the property.

“I can’t provide stormwater management for the entire property, but we will provide it for our development, which will help the quality of the bay immensely,” he said.

While much work remains before construction can begin, Gilligan believes building can start in the summer of 2019, with homes selling as early as the first quarter in 2020.

Community members will be kept informed of the process and be able to comment, with at least one more public input meeting to be held after the concept plan is submitted, Gilligan said.

Times reporter Patrick Taylor contributed to this article. read more

Kamenetz unveils free community college tuition plan for high school graduates

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Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, flanked by BCPS Interim Superintendent Verletta White (left) and CCBC President Sandra Kurtinitis (right), touted the College Promise proposal on March 19 as a game changer both educationally and economically. Photo by Patrick Taylor.
(Updated 3/21/18)

- By Patrick Taylor -

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz unveiled a new proposal on Monday, March 19, that aims to provide community college tuition for college-ready county residents who may otherwise be priced out of higher education.

Kamenetz announced the need-based “College Promise” proposal at CCBC Essex, alongside Baltimore County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Verletta White and CCBC President Sandra Kurtinitis.

“This is a real game-changer for students from low or moderate income families for whom the benefits of a college education might otherwise be out of reach,” said Kamenetz. It opens up a lifetime of career income opportunities.”

The plan, which would require approval from the Baltimore County Council, would make up the difference between grants and financial aid and the total cost of tuition, which runs $1,876 per semester for a full-time student.

In the first year, the plan is likely to cost about $1 million, rising to $2.3 million by the program’s third year.

Kurtinitis estimated that there are approximately 1,100 students who have graduated in Baltimore County over the last two years who would qualify for the program.

In order to qualify, students must be county residents with an adjusted household income of $69,000, the median income for Baltimore County. A student would also need a 2.5 GPA and have graduated within the previous two years.

Those who have been out of school for longer than two years and those who need to take remedial classes first are not eligible for College Promise.

“This isn’t about giving anyone an opportunity,” said Kurtinitis. “This is about giving students who are college-ready an opportunity.”

Kamenetz maintained that the College Promise program will yield “transformative” results, both educationally and economically.

“We believe it will increase college graduation rates,” said Kamenetz, adding that a labor pool with better education credentials helps spur growth. He said well over 90 percent of those who get a degree from CCBC stay in Baltimore County, and that an associate’s degree from CCBC will translate to more than $300,000 in additional lifetime earnings.

White added that the opportunity to attend community college cost-free adds extra motivation to high school students who would otherwise be priced out of admission.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for our recent graduates, especially those with financial constraints, to take full advantage of the tremendous education and career-advancing opportunities at CCBC,” said White.

The College Promise proposal also already has the backing of a majority on the county council.

“For the people in my district, this announcement will be a true lifesaver,” said Councilwoman Cathy Bevins (D-6). “Free college tuition will open up doors that otherwise would be closed. I am so proud to be part of this effort.”

Kamenetz noted that Bevins was one of two people to tear up when they heard about the proposal, the other being an administrative assistant in county government. Bevins has never been shy about noting that she was not able to afford college when she was younger.

The proposal also has the support of Republican councilmen Todd Crandell (R-7) and David Marks (R-5). Crandell commended the push to make college affordable, while Marks said he supports expanding community college and workforce training to all who need it, especially given the cost of the program. Marks did add, however, that he would have liked to have been given the opportunity for input before Monday’s announcement.

“County government works best when the executive branch briefs the legislature beforehand, and not surprisingly, that did not happen with all members of the Council,” said Marks.

With an enrollment around 62,000, many of whom return to college years after finishing high school, this program would not be available for most. In 2017, almost 38 percent of county high school graduates needed to take a remedial English class, and 59 percent needed a remedial math class, according to CCBC.

Similar programs have taken off all around the country over the last few years. There are currently 40 states with similar programs in place, and just last year Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh implemented a similar proposal in the city.

If approved in Kamenetz’s final budget proposal in April, the plan would be implemented for the Fall 2018 semester. Kamenetz is in his last year as county executive and is currently running for governor of Maryland.  read more

County landmarks commission rejects nomination for Ft. Howard buildings, property

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The VA hospital building is slated for restoration, but the future of the Fort Howard property is still uncertain. File photo.
(Updated 3/21/18)

- By Devin Crum -

The Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission voted at its most recent meeting on March 8 not to accept a nomination for historical designation of several buildings at Fort Howard.

The Fort Howard property, owned by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), has suffered from neglect and vandalism - including several building fires - since the veterans hospital on the site closed for good in 2002 and redevelopment of the property was announced.

In light of the deterioration of the buildings on the property, as well as the news last fall that the historic Rosewood Center in Owings Mills was being de-listed by the state due to the “demolition by neglect” occurring there, a group of concerned citizens decided to nominate Fort Howard for historic preservation.

Scott Pappas, Fort Howard Community Association president and a member of the nominating group, told the Essex-Middle River Civic Council on March 7 that 21 of the buildings on the site have already been deemed eligible for recognition on the National Register of Historic Places. Therefore, those buildings and some of the land around them were nominated for the county’s list in hopes it could give them some leverage to hold the VA responsible in preserving them.

“We thought as a body we needed to put this as quickly as possible into landmark status to preserve these 21 historic assets of our American heritage and culture,” Pappas told the EMRCC.

But Michael Field, attorney for Baltimore County, said federal supremacy prohibits local governments from imposing regulatory authority over federal properties. He added that the key word in the law is “consideration” and that it does not require adherence to local codes.

“So they’ve imposed on themselves already the requirement only to consider, and then to take recommendations from the local authorities,” he said. Additionally, legal action cannot be brought against the federal government by a local jurisdiction for failure to meet requirements or uphold those recommendations.

Field could not say for sure if the county is legally able to landmark the Fort Howard property. “But it’s meaningless” to do so, he said.

As a result, Teri Rising, historic preservation planner with the county’s Office of Planning, recommended that the commission reject the nomination, which Field agreed was the “logical” thing to do.

“To be consistent with the past actions of the commission, it seems reasonable that we would not accept this nomination,” Rising said.

As a result, the commission voted 12-1 to reject the VA property’s nomination for historic landmarking. Only commission member Louis Diggs voted against the action, and member Rose Benton recused herself from the vote since she was a member of the nominating group.

Benton admitted that she did not think landmarking the property would change anything, but raised the point that the buildings are not being taken care of currently.

“Four of those houses have burned down,” she said. “There’s nothing happening there. It’s been sitting there since [2002].”

The commission as a whole, however, felt it was the wrong venue to address the situation. Some members commented that the proper vehicles for the site’s preservation are already in place in the form of the Maryland State Historic Preservation Office’s (SHPO) designation of the property and the programmatic agreement in place between the VA, SHPO and the property’s lease holder and developer, Fort Howard Development LLC (FHD).

The agreement spells out what needs to be done, at what time and by whom to maintain and protect the portions of the property deemed historic. In particular, it states that the developer “at its own expense shall make reasonable efforts to at all times protect, preserve and repair the property and shall keep same in good order and condition.”

It further states, “Prior to and during construction activities, FHD will make reasonable efforts to secure, maintain and safeguard the historic resources listed... to ensure that they are protected against damage and further deterioration until the long-term treatment measures stipulated in the [agreement] are fulfilled.”

State Delegate Robin Grammer (R-6), who introduced a bill in the General Assembly in Annapolis that would require the state to acquire Fort Howard if it is ever offered for sale or transfer, called the commission’s vote “unfortunate.”

He said he generally supported the effort to have the property landmarked by the county, but acknowledged the legal conflict in doing so.

“What we essentially have is the inability to protect a historic property because it’s under a federal purview, except the feds have done absolutely nothing to hold the leaseholders to protect the property,” he said. “It really speaks to the need to have more local control over local assets, as opposed to someone in Washington, D.C. who has been, frankly, completely withdrawn.”

Grammer’s bill was heard by the House Appropriations Committee, also on March 8, and he said except for a few technical questions “nothing really of substance” was discussed during the hearing.

“I didn’t really get that there were a lot of strong feelings either way about it,” he said.

As of Tuesday, March 20, the committee had not yet voted on the bill.

The fiscal note accompanying the bill states that the measure would likely have no material effect on state finances because “there is no imminent prospect of the Fort Howard VA property being made available for acquisition.”

And according to Grammer, the VA has said the developer “still intends to move forward with the project.

“I find that very interesting because we haven’t seen any viable proposal,” he said. “So I don’t see this going anywhere.”

Timothy Munshell, with FHD, at first proposed a mixed-use development for the property consisting of nearly 1,400 residences. More recently, developer Sam Himmelrich presented a plan for around 300 homes on the site, but has been noncommittal about officially signing onto the project.

“Really, ultimately, what we’re looking for here is an opportunity to gain local acquisition in the case that [the developer] walks away,” Grammer said. “We’re looking for a backstop here.” read more

Stats show east side crime on the rise in 2017

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(Updated 3/21/18)

- By Patrick Taylor -

Violent crime is up in Baltimore County, according to the 2017 crime statistics released last week by the Baltimore County Police Department.

While homicides remained flat at 35 last year, violent crime rose 14.5 percent countywide. In the county, the White Marsh, Essex and Dundalk precincts saw the largest increases in violent crime.

The Essex precinct saw the biggest jump, with a 32.3 percent jump increase year, while the White Marsh and Dundalk precincts saw their violent crime rates rise by 25.9 percent and 22.5 percent, respectively.

All three east side precincts saw aggravated assault numbers skyrocket by at least 29 percent, with the White Marsh and Dundalk numbers rising by 37 percent. Across the county, aggravated assaults increased by 23.5 percent.

Robbery reports also rose considerably on the east side, with the Essex precinct seeing a massive 45-percent increase. The White Marsh precinct saw just over a 15-percent rise in robberies, while the Dundalk precinct settled in at 8 percent.

Regarding homicides, things stayed stagnant in the county, with 35 homicides reported on the year. The Essex precinct saw a rise from four homicides in 2016 to seven in 2017. White Marsh saw homicides decrease from three to one during that time, while the Dundalk precinct saw a 100-percent drop, recording no homicides last year.

“One thing we’ve seen is the result of the opioid epidemic in our area,” said police spokesman Cpl. Shawn Vinson.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz echoed that sentiment to the Baltimore Sun on Monday afternoon after previously declining to comment.

“Our police are well-trained, they’re well equipped with the latest technology and they work well with the community,” said Kamenetz. He added that the county has a “record low crime rate” per capita.

Kamenetz told reporters that his administration has been working to curb the opioid problem, which has ravaged Baltimore County. Last year saw the number of opioid-related deaths surge past 230 in September. Numbers for the final quarter of the year are not yet available. He added that he would like to see the Maryland State Police do more to prevent drug trafficking on I-95.

Exemplifying Kamenetz’s claim about record low crime rates, there were few areas that saw decreases in crime in 2017. Burglaries were down 15 percent countywide, including in eight out of 10 precincts. The White Marsh precinct led the way on that front, with a decrease of 44 percent. In Essex, that number was around a 20-percent decrease while in Dundalk they saw an 11.4-percent drop.

In total, Baltimore County saw a 3.9-percent increase in total crime, which consists of violent and nonviolent crimes. Only burglaries and motor vehicle thefts saw a decrease countywide, while every other category saw at least a minimal increase. read more

Application deadline for school board pushed to May 1; public hearings scheduled

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The Baltimore County Board of Education meets at its headquarters off Charles Street in Towson.
(Updated 3/21/18)

- By Marge Neal -

Citing some possible public confusion about the makeup of Baltimore County’s new hybrid Board of Education and a thin pool of candidates who have so far applied for the four politically appointed at-large seats, the deadline to apply has been extended to May 1.

When the original deadline of March 16 passed, only 14 applications had been received, according to Aaron Plymouth, chairman of the Baltimore County School Board Nominating Commission.

“When we have to send eight names to the governor to fill four spots and we have 14 applications, that’s just not a real broad pool of candidates,” Plymouth told the East County Times.

Effective with this year’s election, the board will consist of seven popularly elected members for councilmanic districts and four at-large members appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan, all of whom will serve four-year terms. An appointed student member serves a one-year term.

Candidates running for election had until Feb. 27 to file their intentions while those seeking political appointment faced the original date of March 16.

When the commission met March 5, members discussed concern over the number of applicants at that point, according to Plymouth, and decided that perhaps more could be done to better inform the public of the process, he said.

Because this process is new to everyone, including the commission, the group decided to extend the deadline to get the word out one last time.

“We also discovered that, according to statute, the commission is required to hold at least three public hearings about the process and we hadn’t done that,” Plymouth said. “So to satisfy the statute and to put forth the best possible candidates, we extended the deadline and scheduled the hearings.”

There also was some last minute confusion about all candidates being required to submit financial disclosure statements to the school board’s ethics committee, and this extension allows people a little more time to file that paperwork as well, Plymouth believes.

“This is just about us increasing our accountability and transparency and giving the public more access to the information needed,” Plymouth said.

The informational meetings will be held around the county as follows: Thursday, March 22, from 7 - 8 p.m. at Cockeysville Middle School; Monday, March 26, from 7 - 8 p.m. at Stemmers Run Middle School; and Thursday, April 12, from 7 - 8 p.m. at Milford Mill Academy.

The nominating commission has its own page on the Baltimore County Public Schools website, Plymouth said. He lauded staff for greatly improving the page, saying it’s easy to navigate and contains all the information potential candidates need, including the ability to download the application.

All relevant information can be accessed at

Applications can be mailed or hand-delivered to the Baltimore County School Board Nominating Committee, in care of Debi Decker, 6901 N. Charles St., Towson, MD 21204. Electronic submissions will not be accepted, according to a statement from the commission. read more

Delegate Grammer’s BCPS audit bill dies in Baltimore County House Delegation

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The State House in Annapolis. File photo.
(Updated 3/21/18)

- By Patrick Taylor -

A bill requiring the Office of Legislative Audits to conduct a special comprehensive audit of the procurement practices and contracts of the Baltimore County Public School System (BCPS) failed to make it out of the Baltimore County House Delegation on Friday, March 16, effectively killing the bill.

With the legislative audit bill dead, that leaves only one avenue for an audit, which would be done locally.

Drafted by Delegate Robin Grammer (R-6) in the wake of former BCPS superintendent Dallas Dance’s admitting to perjury for not disclosing outside income, the legislative audit bill was voted down along party lines.

Dance had received thousands of dollars from technology companies doing business with BCPS, leading to questions about how those companies’ contracts were procured.

“A couple people got sick and a couple who said they were going to vote for it suddenly pulled back out. And it’s really disheartening,” Grammer told the East County Times on Monday night. “The bottom line is we never want to have to experience this again in our county. Parents, teachers and students deserve better. Taxpayers deserve better.”

Grammer stated that there was cross-party support for the bill, but that it “evaporated” when it came time to vote.

“The people in my district were massively in support of this bill. I’ve heard maybe two or three people against it countywide,” said Grammer. “This is not and should not be a partisan issue at all.”

Delegate Eric Bromwell (D-8) voted against the legislation. He told the Times  that, in essence, a legislative audit would be redundant.

“We already have an [request for proposal] RFP out for a true third party review investigation and audit. I dont think it’s wise to have another redundant study at the cost of the county when we already have one going on,” said Bromwell.

Both Bromwell and Grammer blamed political posturing, with Bromwell saying that “a legislative audit is not a true third party audit” because it inserts a political body into “a situation I believe is already political enough.”

The Office of Legislative Audits, which would have overseen the BCPS audit, calls itself an independent, non-partisan agency.

Grammer stated that for an audit to be trusted, it needed to move away from Baltimore County.

“If BCPS is procuring an audit for themselves, is anyone going to trust the findings or the process?” Grammer questioned.

Grammer maintained that those opposed to his legislative audit bill want to see issues plaguing the school system swept under the rug. On Friday, after the House Delegation vote, Grammer took to Facebook saying “The cover up is complete.” He doubled down on that claim Monday night, saying that, in light of both Dance’s plea and the plea agreement of former Baltimore County employee Bob Barrett, local authorities were too intertwined and unobjective.

“These parties are all connected,” said Grammer, adding that there are too many “politically influential people who have been around for a long time.”

Bromwell expressed his displeasure with Grammer’s comments on social media, saying that he had a “very strong objection” to claims of a cover up.

“To accuse your colleague of criminal misconduct is not something that we do down here just because we disagree on a vote,” said Bromwell.

He added that he is in agreement with Grammer on the substance of the audit, just not the source. He cautioned that Grammer’s comments may come back to haunt him further down the line.

“This isn’t how things work down here and this, quite frankly, isn’t how you get things done for your constituents,” said Bromwell. “You don’t want to be the person who says these things about your colleagues from whom you’re going to need a vote one day, and they’re never going to forget that.”

Despite the fact that an RFP had already been submitted, Grammer believes it is the job of the state representatives to ensure independence.

“The counties are an extension of the state,” said Grammer. “They are not derived from an authority of their own.” read more

County executive candidates chat with Greater Parkville residents

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Baltimore County Executive candidates Jim Brochin (D, left), Pat McDonough (R) and John Olszewski Jr. (D) introduced themselves to Parkville-area residents and gave their stances on several issues related to the area. Two other county executive candidates, Democrat Vicki Almond and Republican Al Redmer, did not attend the forum. Photo by Marge Neal.
(Updated 3/21/18)

- By Marge Neal -

With Maryland’s primary just over three months away, political candidates are stepping up their efforts to communicate their respective messages to voters, while many community and political organizations are holding forums to hear those messages.

Thanks to a forum on March 8, organized by the Greater Parkville Community Council, area residents heard from 13 candidates, including three running for Baltimore County Executive.

Democrats Jim Brochin and John Olszewski Jr. and Republican Pat McDonough accepted the group’s invitation to weigh in on Greater Parkville concerns and priorities. Each candidate was given five minutes to introduce themselves to the audience and to answer two specific questions as related to the Parkville/Carney/Cub Hill area: what are your priorities for the area and how do you plan to address them, and how do you plan to keep citizens involved in government decisions that affect the community?

Brochin, now a state senator representing the 42nd Legislative District, told the crowd he is “giving up a very safe Senate seat” to run for county executive because he is passionate about cleaning up key problems and improving the general quality of life in Baltimore County.

He cited overdevelopment as a key contributor to a lesser quality of life for county residents and blamed the “pay-to-play” philosophy he believes is rampant in county politics.

“Developers donate to candidates because they expect something in exchange for those donations,” Brochin said. “I’m going to end pay-to-play if I’m elected county executive.”

Brochin believes a wide variety of issues need to be addressed to make Baltimore County a more comfortable and attractive place to call home. He cited the need for additional bike paths, improved efforts at cleaning up trash, increasing the rate of recycling and adding more police officers and increasing neighborhood patrols as ways county life can be improved.

Addressing another hot topic, Brochin said he would work closely with Baltimore County Public Schools to improve its procurement system and help reestablish public trust in BCPS.

Pat McDonough, a delegate representing the Seventh Legislative District, is also giving up what many believe to be a safe seat to run for county executive.

The candidate, who has endeared himself to many by not sugar-coating anything, opened his remarks by sharing an experience he had with a group of residents at a local senior high-rise apartment complex.

“I told them, ‘If you are content with Baltimore County, you do not want me,’” he said. “If you are confident in the future of Baltimore County, I am not your guy.”

Running with an “Excellence in Education” agenda, McDonough was clear that he thinks a change in the top leadership of the school system is needed.

“I don’t want Verletta White permanently; she’s an extension of Dallas Dance,” McDonough said.

White was named to lead county schools temporarily after the sudden resignation of Dance, who was recently convicted on four counts of perjury with regard to outside employment he failed to report to the Board of Education.

McDonough, describing the Baltimore County Police Department as a suburban department serving an increasingly urban area, said he would like to see an increase in the force.

Olszewski introduced himself as a Dundalk native, husband, father and a “blue-collar progressive” in favor of universal pre-kindergarten and free community college tuition.

The former Baltimore County school teacher said it is important to address school overcrowding because it affects learning and safety. He also called for an increase in support professionals such as pupil personnel workers, social workers and psychologists.

Economic development, jobs training and the creation of arts and entertainment districts in the county are other priorities of Olszewski’s.

And in an effort to make county government more accessible and transparent, Olszewski said he would like to see county work sessions - where most public discussion on bills takes place - moved from the middle of the day when people are working to the evening.

After the candidates had used their allotted time, GPCC president Ruth Baisden entertained questions from the audience.

Carney activist Meg O’Hare challenged the candidates to weigh in on the topic of Fred Homan, the county’s administrative officer who many believe has been allowed to become too powerful and authoritative in the day-to-day operation of county government.

“When I get sworn in at 12 noon, at 12:01 Fred Homan is fired,” Brochin said, leaving no question as to his stance. “A lot of people involved in Baltimore County are there to enrich themselves and that needs to stop.”

McDonough said he believes the county “is infested with cronyism and corruption” and he would like to see a more open government that puts people first.

“Everything is covered up,” he said of government operations. “It must be totally reorganized within the first six months.”

Olszewski, while not mentioning Homan specifically, said, “If you’re going to chart a new path, the team needs to look different.”

The GPCC will offer another forum later this spring featuring candidates for state office, according to organizers.

Maryland’s primary election is June 26, with winners advancing to November’s general election. read more

Greater Parkville Community Council hosts candidate forum

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Ed Hale Jr. (left), a Republican challenger for the County Council’s Third District seat, as well as Sixth District Democrat Cathy Bevins and Fifth District Republican David Marks, both incumbents, each participated in the forum for their respective districts. Photo by Marge Neal.
(Updated 3/14/18)

- By Marge Neal -

With the filing deadline in the past and ballots set for this year’s election races, many organizations are doing their best to make sure local residents are as informed about and familiar with candidates and their stands as possible.

The Greater Parkville Community Council on March 8 held a candidate forum for candidates running for county executive as well as third-, fifth- and sixth-district County Council seats.

Turnout was robust, with 13 candidates attending to share their backgrounds and agendas with attendees, as well as to answer two Parkville-Carney-Cub Hill-specific questions that were posed to all elected hopefuls.

Each candidate was given five minutes to introduce themselves to the audience and to answer the two questions as related to the Parkville/Carney/Cub Hill area: what are your priorities for the area and how do you plan to address them, and how do you plan to keep citizens involved in government decisions that affect the community?

Ed Hale Jr., Doug Zinn and incumbent Wade Kach, who are vying for the Republican spot in the general election for the Third District Baltimore County Council seat and Democrat Bronwyn Mitchell-Strong participated in the gathering.

Hale introduced himself as a business owner with a trucking company in Rosedale that “runs 40 trucks in and out of the Port of Baltimore.” He said he is concerned about the amount of spending Baltimore County has done in the past eight years and said the county is “dangerously close to maxing out its borrowing limits.”

Citing the moves of Comcast and MediFast, Hale said he would like to stop the trend of businesses moving out of the county and added he would like more education attention paid to trades. Noting that “college is not for everyone,” Hale gave a nod to the success of an HVAC program at Dulaney High School.

“You have kids graduating from high school and going to jobs that pay [up to] $80,000 a year,” he said.

Zinn told the audience of his experience working with the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health and Baltimore County government and said he knows how to raise money and do it well.

He spoke of getting involved in his community and said that throughout his life, he has taken pride in his ability to take responsibility and follow through on tasks at hand.

Zinn cited the success of getting some underground water tanks installed in more rural communities as an example of his ability to see and attack a problem. He realized that house fires were hard to fight in rural areas without close access to water hydrants.

After seeing a local gas station close, he inquired about getting the old tanks cleaned and donated for use as water tanks. That conversation led to the gas company donating new tanks and his community was better prepared to save houses and lives as a result of him addressing the problem.

He agreed that bringing new businesses to Baltimore County is important, but said the infrastructure - including roads, utilities and parking - needs to be there.

Zinn told the crowd that, if elected, he will work full-time for his constituents.

“I will work just for you,” he said. “I won’t have another job, I don’t own a company, I will be your full-time councilman.”

Incumbent Kach said it has been an honor to represent the Third District and cited his experience and accomplishments while in office. He elicited some applause when he said he voted against “$43 million in corporate welfare in Towson,” referring to a recently passed council bill that provided a “bailout” to a “politically-connected developer whose project was failing.”

Mitchell-Strong said she decided to run after “coming face-to-face” with the dark side of Baltimore County when she opened her home to foster care five years ago. She cited the opioid problem, domestic abuse, homelessness and child trauma as some of the reasons she decided to run.

“I’m not here to run against anyone, but to run for our children, the future and the now,” she told the crowd.

She said her agenda will be driven by facts and figures and cited her nonprofit work experience as proof she can be fiscally responsible.

“With my nonprofit experience, I’m used to working on a shoestring budget, where every donor dollar is precious,” she said. “It’s the same with the tax dollar - every dollar is precious.”

Mitchell-Strong said she decided to run for office after realizing she could not ask her children to be the change in the world if she was not willing to do the same.

Incumbent Republican David Marks and Democrat John Torsch, running for the Fifth District seat, also participated in the forum.

Marks introduced himself as a lifelong resident of northeastern Baltimore County. He noted his ability to work across party lines to accomplish things for his district.

“The party doesn’t matter as much as principle and good government,” he said.

Over the past eight years, Marks has played a significant role in the district, getting three new schools and eight new parks, he said. He has held 20 town hall meetings in that time, proving his ability to communicate and keep constituents informed.

His major priorities for the community are public safety, schools, roads and open spaces. He is proud that every school in the Fifth District has air conditioning and that he has “down-zoned historic amounts of space” during his tenure.

“I have worked across party lines to advance the needs of my district and I have consistently supported reforms to keep developers in check,” he said.

Torsch, who is a professional chef and world traveler, described himself as the oldest of the three sons of two hard-working people who were in the room to support him in his quest for public office.

He told the crowd of losing one of his brothers to a heroin overdose in 2010 and said that loss serves as motivation to help his community.

“I’m not here to start a political career, this is my chance to do what I can in my little corner of the world,” he said.

With more than 300 overdose deaths in Baltimore County last year, Torsch said he hopes to do whatever he can to reduce those numbers. He also cited school violence and overcrowding as priority issues.

“My promise to you is absolute transparency,” he said.

The primary election will be held June 26, with winners moving on to the general election in November. read more

Stakeholders debate merits of dredging oyster shoal in House committee

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The location and general shape of Man-O-War shoal. Dark lines indicate the boundaries of oyster bars mapped by Yates (1911). Yellow rectangles within the outline of the shoal illustrate the types of cuts anticipated as shell is removed by dredging along the perimeter. However, cuts on the western third of the shoal are no longer planned since those areas were seeded with oyster spat within the last 10 years. Image courtesy of MD DNR.
(Updated 3/14/18)

- By Devin Crum -

A bill to prohibit dredging Man-O-War Shoal for oyster shell brought the issue of oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay to the forefront on March 7 when the legislation was heard before a committee in Annapolis.

House Bill 1455, sponsored by Delegate Robin Grammer (R-Essex), would keep the state from following through on a 2009 mandate to dredge the prehistoric oyster bar for shell to be used to restore other oyster bars throughout the bay.

In testimony before the House of Delegates’ Environment and Transportation Committee, Grammer said his bill is necessary, first, because dredging MOWS is a “temporary solution.”

“For several decades, hundreds of millions of bushels of buried oyster shell from multiple areas in the upper bay were dredged for this purpose,” he said. “When the supply was exhausted, the program was ended and our problems persist.”

Larry Jennings, with Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, said the state’s Department of Natural Resources dredged more than 185 million bushels of shell during its four-decade-long oyster repletion program.

That program, carried out by DNR between 1962 and 2006, dredged oyster shell from intact bars in the upper bay to replenish degraded ones in the lower bay. It has been criticized by CCA and other advocates for devastating the bars which it took from and being ineffective for accomplishing its goals.

“That pile of shell, put in Ravens stadium football field [would reach] a mile and a half high,” Jennings said. “Ten years after the program ends, it’s gone. We spent a lot of taxpayer dollars to do that work with no residual benefit.”

Grammer’s second point on his bill was that dredging the shoal is not an effective solution to the state’s need for substrate on which to grow oysters.

“We have watched as previously dredged shell quickly degrades, leaving us with the same problem,” he said.

Dr. Ken Lewis, also with CCA, pointed out that DNR’s own application to dredge states the half-life of dredged shell on which to plant oysters is only three to six years.

“When it’s exposed to the water and other organisms... it does degrade,” he said. “It’s only a short-term solution.

“What happens if you dredge Man-O-War Shoal and it’s 20 years later and you’ve used all the shell and the resource is gone,” he asked. “Where are we in terms of a sustainable oyster population in the bay, which is what all of us want?”

Robert Newberry, with the Delmarva Fisheries Association, agreed that the shell may degrade more quickly in Virginia’s portion of the bay where the water is more saline. But in the upper bay it lasts more like seven to 10 years, he said, noting that there is still shell from the repletion program in the Choptank River.

“This problem isn’t because the shell wasn’t working,” he said. “It’s because an environmental group found it necessary to basically deter the permit from existing after 2006.”

Grammer’s third and final point was that the shoal is a valuable resource that should not be tampered with.

“Man-O-War has been a prized fishing location for the citizens of southeastern Baltimore [County] for generations,” the delegate said. “The shoal provides recreational opportunities that support residents and businesses. If a program destroys a natural resource that is unique to our bay as a temporary reprieve and does nothing toward creating a sustainable oyster population, it should not be pursued.”

Lewis said it is important to remember that when the 2009 mandate was passed, oyster sanctuary development in the bay’s tributaries was just beginning and oyster aquaculture was in its infancy.

“Since that time, there has been extensive experience with other substrates for setting oysters that have been very successful...,” he said, naming granite and concrete as examples.

But Chip MacLeod, an attorney with the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, said it is “preposterous” that some leading environmental organizations say natural oyster shell is not that good for growing oysters, “that the shell Mother Nature designed for oysters is not as good as stone, debris and rubble.”

CCC, an organization of local governments on the Eastern Shore which advocates for fiscal responsibility in Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, has said the MOWS shell is currently covered over with sediment and would be of higher value to the bay ecosystem if dredged and used elsewhere as a base for new oyster growth.

The organization has also pushed for dredging the shell because it is already here in the bay and would not have to be purchased at a higher cost from elsewhere and brought in.

“The major point here is that in the last decade, we have learned to use alternative materials for growing oysters,” Lewis asserted. “And so the necessity for having shell is not where it was 10 years ago, because bay restoration and oyster proliferation in the bay has gone on for the last decade without dredging shell.”

He said there is “no justification” for dredging shell from Man-O-War. “It is a well-used natural resource on which live oysters are presently living and harvested, and it is used by a whole variety of stakeholders in the upper bay.”

MacLeod pointed out, though, that the shoal is approximately 456 acres in total, and DNR’s proposal is to dredge only 32 acres of it.

“It’s amazing that we’re losing focus of how important shell is to bring back oysters,” he said. “With the amount of sedimentation, we need to get the shell up above the mud.”

Allison Colden, a Maryland fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said MOWS is the last remaining example of what oyster populations in the bay once were.

She noted that the DNR permit proposes dredging 30 million bushels of shell from the shoal, which accounts for more than 30 percent of its total volume.

“And even if they were to dredge that amount, it would not produce a significant or lasting benefit for the oyster population,” Colden said.

She added that if all 30 million bushels went to the fishery and was only targeted to the top five producing harvest areas in the bay, only 2 percent of that bottom could be planted, one time. And with the lifespan of the shell, at best, those areas could be harvested just twice before the shell is gone. read more

Miele looks for Maryland to move on from PARCC testing

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Delegate Christian Miele (standing) met with constituents and BCPS stakeholders for about three hours on Feb. 15 to discuss concerns about disciplinary issues in county schools. The first-term delegate also unveiled a legislative package aimed at curbing these issues. Photo by Patrick Taylor.
(Updated 3/14/18)

- By Patrick Taylor -

Last Friday, Delegate Christian Miele presented six bills before the House of Delegates’ Ways and Means Committee, five of which took a sharp focus on Baltimore County Public Schools.

Jokingly referring to his time testifying before the committee as “Delegate Miele Day,” the Republican presented legislation aimed at creating an anti-bullying task force, eliminating the PARCC test, creating an updated anti-drug awareness campaign and a bill that would allow schools to lease naming rights of fields and stadiums as a way to bring in revenue.

A good chunk of Miele’s time in front of the committee was spent on HB:1373, which would put an end to PARCC testing in Maryland.

While there are a host of reasons why Miele opposes the PARCC test, he  primarily pointed to poor scores and wasted school resources.

“What’s super deeply troubling to me is [in Baltimore County] our pass rate for the math portion of the PARCC test among elementary and middleschoolers is 30.3 percent and in English, 36.5 percent,” said Miele. “So we are woefully inadequate in having students succeed in taking this test. Another sticking point is 123 out of 180 school days per year are eligible to be used for PARCC testing. Librarians are kicked out of library for proctoring, resources are unavailable for extended periods of time.”

He added that the test has “created an onerous burden” on students, teachers and administrators due to the fact that the test can take 15 hours to administer per year.

Miele noted that there’s no federal funding tied to PARCC, but added that the issue must be addressed because the contract for the company that administers the test is up for renewal. He went on to contend that there are other available standardized tests like the California Achievement Test (CAT) and the TerraNova test. His sentiments were echoed by Jonathan Roland, a Perry Hall teacher who testified alongside Miele.

Roland said that this was not about  dodging poor assessments, but rather getting accurate assessments. The CAT and TerraNova tests have much easier formats, whereas the format for the PARCC test has to be taught along with the material. Roland also pointed to Maryland’s fall in Education Week’s state ranking, which Maryland topped for five consecutive years until 2013. From 2013 on, Maryland has dropped one place each year, currently occupying the No. 6 position on the list. Roland contended that the implementation of PARCC and Maryland’s fall from the top were intertwined.

“When my oldest children graduated, they graduated from the best state in the nation,” said Roland. “When my youngest graduates, we won’t even be in the top 10 percent. And that makes me angry.”

Legislators on the committee questioned whether the lack of success in Baltimore County had less to do with the test and more to do with the material being inadequately conveyed.

“Because students are failing, I don’t necessarily know that there’s something wrong with the test,” said Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins (D-20).

Wilkins also questioned whether a test designed for California would be up to Maryland’s standards.

Roland told the committee that he preferred the TerraNova test, but that the CAT had been administered for decades until 1991.

Wilkins said it was a “conversation worth having” but remained unconvinced that students’ struggles with the test were due to problems with the test itself.

Roland contested that there is evidence the test isn’t working, pointing to the S.A.T.

“A secondary assessment like the S.A.T. does not show 66 percent of our students below an acceptable standard. The S.A.T. doesn’t do that. So why does the PARCC fail 66 percent of students?”

Miele added that only six states currently use PARCC testing, with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy recently announcing his plans to withdraw the state in the near future.

While Miele’s push to eliminate PARCC was received relatively coolly by the committee, most of his other bills seemed to have decent support.

When questioned about the anti-bullying bill, Miele told legislators that the plan was to implement the multi-year effort in Baltimore County and see if it proves to be successful. If the task force does come up with findings that can be implemented statewide, he said he would be more than happy to introduce legislation to expand the program across the state.

On schools raising funding through leasing naming rights for fields and stadiums, the only real point of concern was the type of content/business that could be featured. Miele assured the committee that guidelines would be established to prevent anything unseemly from being used. read more

Bill to reduce Key Bridge toll rates questioned in committee

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Metzgar’s bill would create an annual $100 flat rate for commuters using the bridge. Photo courtesy of Maryland State Archives.
(Updated 3/14/18)

- By Devin Crum -

Questions and comments were light Friday afternoon, March 9, on a bill to allow a flat rate for commuters who use the Francis Scott Key Bridge. But some lawmakers expressed concern about the amount of money the state could lose if the plan is implemented.

Delegate Ric Metzgar (R-Essex) introduced House Bill 1332 which would institute a $100 flat rate for commuters using the Key Bridge, allowing them unlimited trips for the year.

Paul M. Blitz, Metzgar’s chief of staff, said the plan would be similar to one currently in place for the Hatem Bridge over the Susquehanna River between Harford and Cecil counties, which allows unlimited trips through that facility for just $20 annually.

Blitz testified on the bill before the House Environment and Transportation Committee in Annapolis last Friday, stating that many residents of the areas surrounding the Key Bridge live on one side of the span but work on the other.

He acknowledged that Governor Larry Hogan had lowered the toll rates on the bridge and other facilities from $4 to $3 for those using E-ZPass. But the new program, he said, would further “help working families by easing the burden of traveling to and from work.”

Sherri Weems, a resident of southeastern Baltimore County who also testified on the bill, said the unlimited use plan would also make shopping easier for residents near the bridge, potentially generating more economic activity.

By comparison, the Baltimore Regional Discount Plan through E-ZPass, which includes passage over the Key Bridge, allows drivers to pay a commuter rate of $1.40 per trip for up to 50 trips every 45 days. That plan would still cost drivers using the maximum number of trips $567 per year. The same number of trips would cost $1,215 with E-ZPass but without a commuter plan, or $1,620 paying cash.

Del. Robbyn Lewis (D-Baltimore) questioned how the state could afford to maintain the bridge if they give drivers such a reduced price for using it.

“I’m wondering how that’s a benefit to people who depend on the safety and integrity of that bridge if we’re not paying to keep it up,” she said.

Blitz told the East County Times, though, that the Key Bridge currently generates more revenue than is needed to maintain it. And unlike other toll facilities in the state, it does not pool its revenue into a shared fund for use by the Maryland Transportation Administration (MDTA) to maintain its facilities.

In looking at the fiscal analysis of the bill, Del. Jerry Clark expressed concern that the state could lose a significant amount of revenue if the bill is passed.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, MDTA advises that anyone who crosses the harbor at least 34 times a year could save money with the plan. The agency estimates there are 45,480 Key Bridge users who could benefit, and if all purchase the unlimited use plan - which they say is likely - revenues would decrease by $6.4 million in the first year and $8.6 million each year thereafter.

However, the bill would also encourage some users of the Baltimore Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels to purchase the plan and use the bridge instead, cutting into their revenues as well, according to the analysis.

MDTA estimates the total revenue loss among all facilities could be as high as $26.9 million annually, depending on how many tunnel users purchase the plan and use the bridge instead.

Additionally, the agency estimates the one-time implementation cost for the program would be similar to what it was for the Hatem bridge at $450,000. read more

Sixth-District council candidates meet with Greater Parkville residents

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Sullivan (left), Robertson and Geelhaar aim to challenge Bevins in the general election. Photo by Marge Neal.
(Updated 3/14/18)

- By Marge Neal -

Parkville-area residents had the chance to meet and hear candidates for local offices March 8 when the Greater Parkville Community Council hosted a candidates’ forum for county council and county executive hopefuls.

Each candidate was given five minutes to introduce themselves to the audience and to answer two specific questions as related to the Parkville/Carney/Cub Hill area: what are your priorities for the area and how do you plan to address them’ and how do you plan to keep citizens involved in government decisions that affect the community?

Participating Republicans hoping to challenge incumbent Democrat Cathy Bevins for the Sixth District Baltimore County Council seat included Deb Sullivan, Allen Robertson and Glen Geelhaar.

Bevins, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary, also attended.

Sullivan said she is running because of the “many complaints” she has heard in the community over the years. Her emphasis and experience is in schools, she said. She is a graduate of Overlea High School, as are all three of her children.

She has extensive PTA and fundraising experience, citing raising money to replace outdated tot-lot equipment as one example. She said she learned early on to advocate for the children of the community.

“My first love is the schools, and a lot of trouble is brewing,” she said. “Gangs are a problem, even though that’s hush-hush.”

Third-generation Middle River resident Robertson has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and has extensive experience in the banking and financial management industries.

Throughout many years of community activism, Robertson said he on many occasions testified before council members regarding many community issues and concerns.

“I’m here tonight because they’re not listening,” he told the crowd.

The candidate said he believes in term limitations and open communications and transparency and wants to reduce density in communities.

“We have crowded schools and roads and we have utilities paying us not to use electricity,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

In a theme commonly expressed by candidates throughout the night, Robertson said he is not a politician and has never worked for the government. He promised to stop corruption, look at the laws and govern fairly if elected.

Geelhaar, dressed in a blue T-shirt advocating for a new Lansdowne High School, introduced himself as a Parkville native and said he attended Parkville Elementary and Middle schools before graduating from Parkville High.

While attending Villa Julie College - now Stevenson University - he said one of the first things he noticed about his college experience was the individual attention from educators made possible by smaller class sizes. Reducing public school class sizes is vital to student success, he believes.

Geelhaar said the district is flooded with too much retail and said the glut of new retail construction in the White Marsh area has hurt White Marsh Mall.

He told the crowd he has a son with special needs who does not like to be cooped up in the winter and said he and his family frequent the mall.

“The mall is important to the community,” Geelhaar said. “It’s not just a place to shop, it’s a place to socialize.”

Geelhaar said his political agenda is based on the “three Es:” education, economic development and emergency services. He is concerned about schools with brown water and mold, he would like to attract more businesses and jobs, and he wants to see police officers be able to take patrol cars home at night to create the perception of a greater police presence in neighborhoods.

Bevins introduced herself as the incumbent “already serving the Sixth District,” having been elected for the first time in 2010 and then again in 2014.

“My passion is constituent services,” she said. “That’s what I did before I was elected, working with County Executive Jim Smith.”

She noted her role in acquiring $500,000 for improvements to Double Rock Park in Parkville, and said “$1 million in upgrades coming to this senior center if they aren’t already done,” referring to the center - the former Parkville Elementary School - that hosted the forum.

She spoke of 10,000 new jobs coming to the Crossroads development off MD Route 43 and lauded the recent announcement from Stanley Black and Decker that it intends to relocate to that same area and create a significant number of new jobs.

Bevins referred to herself as a common-sense leader and vowed to continue working on behalf of her constituents if reelected.

The Maryland primary election is June 26, with winners moving on to the general election in November.

PGCC plans to offer another forum, featuring candidates for state offices, in May. read more

Empire Resources seeks to bring manufacturing back to Essex site

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Empire Resources is located at the intersection of Martin Boulevard and Kelso Drive. Photo by Devin Crum.
(Updated 3/14/18)

- By Devin Crum -

Empire Resources, Inc., has announced their plan to bring metals manufacturing back to the former home of Worthington Steel on Kelso Drive in Essex.

Since acquiring the former steelmaking facility in 2015, the New Jersey-based company has used it mainly as a warehouse and hub for its commercial trucking business. But Empire Resources now plans to covert the building, located at 8911 Kelso Drive, into a “cold rolling” mill for aluminum and steel.

The company anticipates creating 150 jobs through the transition and that it would be a 24-hour operation.

Larry Schmidt, a land use attorney representing Empire Resources, described the cold rolling process in that, after aluminum and metal alloys are produced from the raw materials in what is known as a “hot rolling” mill operation, they are then sent to a cold rolling mill where the product is pressed into rolls or coils.

Schmidt compared the process to using a rolling pin to press out dough for cookies.

“There is some heating in the process as they do that to make it more malleable,” he said. “But it’s basically taking this aluminum product that they get from the hot mill and turning it into sort of a finished aluminum product.”

The metals are then available to be sold and shipped to anyone who makes products from those materials, Schmidt added.

The attorney said the company’s owners do not anticipate any “unusual, inappropriate, offensive” noises or emissions such as smoke from the operation.

The operation would be required - as any other manufacturing plant would be - to get permits from the Maryland Department of the Environment in order to operate. But the company has already obtained permits for similar operations elsewhere in the country, according to Schmidt, and typically there have been no problems in doing so.

“They are always within the parameters of the government’s requirements in terms of noise at the property line or whatever it might be,” he said.

With regard to traffic, Schmidt said it would likely be about the same as it relates to the facility, but possibly less than it is currently. He noted that there could be slightly less truck traffic because the facility would have more employees coming and going across three shifts, rather than being used as a warehouse.

Of the 150 jobs, Schmidt said about 125 would be “pretty high quality” manufacturing and support jobs, including a number of electricians, plant technicians, supervisors and so on. The remaining positions would likely be administrative ones.

“We do see it as a great job creator and sort of a return to a manufacturing base,” he said.

The closest residences to the site are in the Aero Acres community, and that neighborhood’s community organization has already signed off on the proposal, according to Aero Acres Civic Improvement Association President Bob Driscoll.

Related to the project, County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, who represents the area, introduced legislation to the County Council on March 5 which specifies what type of zone will allow a cold rolling mill.

The county’s zoning regulations currently have no specific listing for such a facility or where it would be permitted. Bevins’ bill identifies properties zoned for light manufacturing - which the Essex site is - as the appropriate zone for those facilities.

“There are these land uses that come about where there just is no definition” in the zoning code,” Schmidt said, adding that the zoning regulations identify and allow hot rolling mills, but cold mills are left out.

He used solar facilities as another recent example of holes in the zoning code that were rectified using similar legislation.  read more

MDOT determines Nawrocki misused state credit card while at MTA

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The Maryland Department of Transportation found through an audit that Ryan Nawrocki - now a candidate for Baltimore County Council - charged what they determined to be personal expenses to his state credit card while working for the Maryland Transit Administration. Photo courtesy of Mass Transit Magazine.
(Updated 3/7/18)

- By Devin Crum -

An audit of corporate purchasing transactions at the Maryland Department of Transportation showed that Ryan Nawrocki, while serving as the director of communications at the Maryland Transit Administration, charged his state-issued credit card for nearly $2,000 in purchases deemed not permitted.

Nawrocki left the state agency in July 2017 and is currently a candidate for Baltimore County Council in the Sixth District.

The audit, which covered the period from June 2016 to June 2017, initially found that $2,307.90 had been improperly charged to the state for things like food and beverage supplies for a Keurig coffee maker, gas for his car, napkins, hand sanitizer, tissues, furniture polish, catering, a hotel stay and a ticket to an awards luncheon.

A letter, obtained by the East County Times, detailing the charges and requesting repayment was sent to Nawrocki in November.

However, MDOT sent a revised letter and bill, also obtained by the Times, to Nawrocki on Monday, March 5, updating the requested repayment total as $471.01. They had determined that $202.82 worth of gas purchases were approved due to the use of a state vehicle during business hours, and $169.07 for catering had been approved previously for a training function.

Additionally, $890 for an Atlanta, Ga., hotel stay and a $575 ticket to an awards luncheon, both purchased for a MTA contractor, had been reimbursed by that contractor, the documents show.

MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson said the department has not yet received payment from Nawrocki and was awaiting his response before sending the claim to the agency’s debt collection arm.

Nawrocki who lives in Middle River, said he was unaware of the issue and had not received the letters, believing they were likely sent to his former address in Rosedale. But he denied that any of the charges were actually for personal expenses.

“I’ve never made personal [purchases] for myself for napkins or a Keurig or whatever,” he said, noting that he was in charge of the communications and marketing department for MTA. “So obviously we had coffee in the office that guests, when they would come in, could utilize.”

He said his department would also host events, so many of the purchases while in the position were related to those.

Regarding the hotel stay and awards luncheon ticket, Nawrocki said the person for whom those were purchased is a contractor with MTA. They attended a social media conference in Atlanta, he said, on behalf of MTA.

“We went through all the proper protocols and procedures,” he said. “Any time that I ever had any work-related expenditures for travel, not only would they be signed off on by my supervisor who was the MTA chief of staff, but they were also then signed off on by the administrator of the MTA.”

Regarding the luncheon ticket, Nawrocki explained it in much the same way. “Again, the chief of staff and the administrator would have signed off on all that because I never just did anything unilaterally.”

The audit documents state, however, that contractors must pay for their own employees’ expenses.

Nawrocki responded to that by stating that, if that is the case, he should not have received approval in the first place from his two immediate supervisors.

“I was following all the proper protocols which we’re supposed to go through,” he said.

Nawrocki explained away the other charges listed, such as the hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, as things purchased for use by MTA employees around the office.

“None of these are expenses that are outside the ordinary of sort of regular, normal business practices,” he said. “I’m sure if I have a conversation they’ll see that the rest of these are all legitimate business expenses.”

He expressed that the issue could likely have been cleared up easily if he had received the information and letters from MDOT and maintained that he properly followed all of MTA’s required protocols in charging the expenses to the state-issued credit card.

“I submitted to my direct supervisor and then got approval on all travel from my direct supervisor and his supervisor, the administrator,” he said. “That’s the procedure that we were told to do.”

In addition, Nawrocki said the charges had to have been initially approved by the MTA’s finance office as well before they would submit payment for the expenses.

“So there were three different stops along the way who all said yes, I was following the proper protocols,” he said.

Nawrocki said it is unfortunate that even three layers of approval was apparently still not enough to account for things he said were done completely by the books.

“That sort of speaks to what we’re focused on in this campaign and reforming these big bureaucracies,” he said.  read more

George W. Wilbanks, East County Times' founder, dies at 85

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(Updated 3/7/18)

- By Marge Neal -

George Washington Wilbanks III, a successful eastern Baltimore County businessman whose ventures ranged from carpet manufacturing, sales and distribution to newspaper publishing, died of kidney failure on Feb. 28. He was 85.

Mr. Wilbanks was the owner and founding publisher of the East County Times.

Born May 1, 1932, in the small rural town of Ramhurst, Ga., Mr. Wilbanks was the son of George W. Wilbanks Jr. and Julie Ledford Wilbanks. He was raised on the family farm, growing vegetables and picking cotton. He graduated from Murray County High School and attended Young Harris College, both in Georgia.

Mr. Wilbanks married his sweetheart and the love of his life, the former Angela Geraldine “Geri” Hunter, in 1951.

Shortly after his wedding, Mr. Wilbanks received a notice to report to the Army Induction Center in Georgia to be examined for military service, according to “Memoirs of a Dreamer,” his autobiography.

In Baltimore at the time for the Christmas holiday, he instead went to a local U.S. Air Force recruiting office and joined that military branch. He served in Japan and France in the 1950s and ‘60s on active duty and as a reservist, according to family members.

After moving to Baltimore, Mr. Wilbanks worked in the carpet business and eventually partnered with Ray Jordan in opening RJ Carpet Distributors Inc. Mr. Wilbanks retired after a 38-year career in the carpet business, but not before embarking on a completely different business adventure.

He was recruited to invest in a group looking to expand the scope of The Herald, a community paper centered in Perry Hall. The investment group was looking to start satellite editions, and Mr. Wilbanks enthusiastically became involved in the Essex effort.

“Me becoming a publisher of a newspaper is about as remote as me becoming the governor of Maryland,” he wrote in his book.

It was not long before the Essex publication was enjoying great success, which Mr. Wilbanks credited to the hiring of newspaper professionals who knew what they were doing. When the unwitting newspaper publisher was given the opportunity to buy the assets of the Essex office, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I did and I have not looked back,” he wrote in his book. The result was the Essex Times, which later was renamed the East County Times to better reflect its coverage area after growing to include communities from Dundalk and Edgemere to Perry Hall and Parkville.

Angie Hess, the paper’s art director, was one of three original employees brought on board to launch the new publication in 1995. She credits Mr. Wilbanks’ passion for the mission and the community it served for making the paper the success it was.

“He had a passion for the paper, a passion for the community and a passion for the people of the community,” Hess said of the publisher. “He believed the community deserved a different voice and he was determined to provide that voice.”

Hess also said Mr. Wilbanks set the paper up for success by allowing employees to do their jobs.

“He was an awesome boss; he never hung over your head,” she said. “He knew you knew what to do and he expected you to just do it.”

Friends and associates of Mr. Wilbanks speak of two traits that he carried throughout his life - his strong and abiding faith in Jesus Christ and his wicked sense of humor.

“I was very close to George and I could sit and listen to him talk for hours and hours,” said Del. Ric Metzgar, a friend of more than 25 years. “I found him to be a very spiritual man and he proudly talked of his love for his savior.”

Mr. Wilbanks regularly attended his childhood church and then fell away from organized religion for a time, according to his autobiography.

One day, while standing on the pier at his waterfront home on the Back River peninsula, Mr. Wilbanks experienced an epiphany of sorts and told his wife they would go to church the following Sunday.

It was August 1979, and the couple chose Back River United Methodist Church because of its proximity to their home.

“I remember him telling me that he told Geri they would sit on the back pew and if they didn’t like the church, they would get up and leave,” Metzgar recalled with a laugh.

It was an anecdote Mr. Wilbanks shared in his book, and, as it turned out, there was no need to sneak out that first day; the church took on an important role in the couple’s lives, with Mr. Wilbanks holding many leadership and committee positions over the years.

In a public show of his faith, Mr. Wilbanks dedicated space on the front page of each weekly edition of the Times for a Bible Verse of the Week, and the Christmas and Easter week editions traditionally have the entire front page devoted to the birth and resurrection, respectively, of Jesus Christ.

As steady as Mr. Wilbanks was in his devotion to his faith and his love for his family, he was well-known for a witty sense of humor and a fascination with the scantily-clad servers of a certain restaurant chain.

“He always said he wanted Hooters girls for his pallbearers,” Metzgar said with a laugh. “And he would have arranged it if he could, but I think Miss Geri would have put a stop to that.”

Mr. Wilbanks was even more descriptive in expressing his funeral preferences.

“I tell everyone that when I die, I want 12 bawling and squalling women, six at the head of the casket and six at the foot, playing those tear-jerking country gospel songs,” he wrote in his book.

Metzgar said he will “deeply, deeply” miss the man he considered a mentor, a brother in Christ and a community leader.

“I visited with him in the hospital not long ago and it was a very memorable last talk,” Metzgar said. “I told him I loved him and that he had been a very good mentor to me politically, and he said, ‘Well, son, you’ve been a mentor to me because you stood by your faith.’ I’ll carry that with me forever and my heart and prayers go out for Geri and the family.”

Metzgar said he will miss the personal prayer sessions he and Mr. Wilbanks shared and the sense of humor that lightened moments and put people at ease.

“And I believe there will be an empty chair at Essex Day this year,” he said.

Outside of his church and businesses, Mr. Wilbanks was involved in many facets of community service. He served as a senator and president of the local JayCees; was a longtime member of the Eastern Baltimore Area Chamber of Commerce and served as president from 1994-96; and was the organizer of several Essex Day festivals. He also managed the campaign office for U.S. Senator Helen Delich Bentley.

In his spare time, Mr. Wilbanks loved a good Western movie, especially those starring John Wayne, enjoyed bluegrass and southern gospel music and loved baseball, according to family members. He played left field while in high school and later for many organized community leagues. He especially loved the Baltimore Orioles and was privileged to know many of the players over the years.

Mr. Wilbanks is survived by his wife and sweetheart of 67 years, Angela G.H. “Geri“ Wilbanks; his daughter, Nancy Morales of Perry Hall; son David H. Wilbanks (Donna) of Panama City Beach, Fla.; four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and a host of extended family members, including many loved nieces and nephews.

In addition to his parents, Mr. Wilbanks was preceded in death by sisters Annie Lou Baggett, Aileen M. Baggett, Ethel Wilbanks and Mary Wilbanks, and brothers Jim, Ed, Marvin and Johnny Wilbanks.

The funeral service was held Monday, March 5, at Back River United Methodist Church, followed by interment at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.

The family asks that those who desire make memorial contributions to Back River United Methodist Church, 544 Back River Neck Road, Essex, MD 21221, or the American Diabetes Association, 800 Wyman Park Drive, Suite 110, Baltimore, MD 21211. read more

Resident seeks historical designation of Fort Howard VA property

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The VA hospital building is slated for restoration, but the future of the Fort Howard property is still uncertain. File photo.
(Updated 3/7/18)

- By Devin Crum -

A resident of the Fort Howard community has filed a request with Baltimore County to include more than 20 buildings on the federally owned Fort Howard site on the county’s historical landmarks list due to their historical significance.

The Baltimore County landmark nomination form, submitted by Scott Pappas, lists some 21 buildings or locations on the roughly 100-acre property, which is currently owned by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Those sites were chosen because they are listed as historic buildings in the 2013 Programmatic Agreement for the future development of the property, according to the form.

The county’s Landmarks Preservation Commission had previously denied the Fort Howard buildings’ inclusion on the landmarks list finding that they do not have jurisdiction over federally owned property. However, Pappas appealed that decision and the commission will discuss the issue at its next meeting on March 8, according to commission member Rose Benton.

Benton, the Seventh Councilmanic District’s representative on the commission, said at the North Point Peninsula Council’s March 1 meeting that they use four criteria to determine if a property is historic and worthy of placement on the list. They look at whether or not it is associated with a personality, group event or series of events of historical importance; if it is a distinctive example of a particular architectural style or period; if it is a good example of the work of a noted architect or master builder; and if it is a work of notable artistic merit.

“Not every property has to meet all those criteria, but it should meet a couple of them,” she said.

The nomination form states that the buildings and locations nominated fall under the first two criteria.

Asked if the property would qualify for placement on the county’s landmarks list if it was not owned by the federal government, Benton said she believes it would.

However, she said if the property were going to be landmarked by the county, the VA - and the federal government as a whole - would likely have to give up ownership of it.

“According to the legal research that the landmarks commission has done, Fort Howard is not eligible to be landmarked as a Baltimore County landmark because the county has no jurisdiction over it,” Benton said. “As long as it’s federally owned property, they really have no ability to.”

She pointed out that other historic sites in the county, such as the Hampton Mansion in Towson, were landmarked by the county before they became federal property.

An established “pecking order” for the VA to transfer the property to another person or entity would see the property first offered to agencies involved in homelessness and homeless advocacy, according to NPC President Francis Taylor. If they did not want the property, it would then be offered to Native American groups, then to other federal agencies, then the state, then the county and finally it would be offered for sale to the general public.

Benton doubted “seriously” that the county would be willing to take ownership of the property, especially given the potential for environmental contamination there that has yet to be addressed.

Fort Howard is historically landmarked by the State of Maryland, however. And Benton said last Thursday that she brought up at the commission’s February meeting that even if the county has no jurisdiction over the property, they end up being responsible for the fires, injuries or other incidents that occur on the site.

“The fire department is tired of going over there,” she said. “So even if the county can’t landmark it to protect it, it is landmarked as a Maryland state landmark. Therefore, I think what we may have to do is start harassing the State of Maryland to do something about it.”

A bill introduced by Del. Robin Grammer (R-6) in the General Assembly in Annapolis, if passed, would direct the state to acquire the Fort Howard site should the VA ever offer it up.

Taylor expressed concern, though, that whoever acquires the property will have some heavy expenses immediately after taking over.

“Just as a state taxpayer, I don’t know if that’s what the state wants to take on,” he said. “It would be a great park, it would be a great anything for open space. But it’s not as easy, I don’t think, as it sounds.”

Other community members lamented that the state’s historical designation has so far provided the buildings at Fort Howard with little, if any, protection and were skeptical that a county designation would be any better.

Benton said that, in her opinion, the county is more proactive when it comes to landmarks preservation, but agreed that the county’s pockets are not as deep as the state’s for doing so.

Pappas had not responded by press time to requests for comment regarding his motivations for nominating the Fort Howard buildings or what added protection he believes a county designation would provide. However, he told the Essex-Middle River Civic Council in December that he sought to create a historic district at the site consisting of “all 21 buildings at the veterans facility.”

He said at the time that he and supporters of the effort wanted to name the district after the late Al Clasing Jr. for his fierce advocacy for veterans and for keeping Fort Howard as a place for veterans.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission will meet to discuss the issue on Thursday, March 8, at 6 p.m. in Room 104 of the Jefferson Building, 105 W. Chesapeake Ave. in Towson. The meeting is open to the public. read more

Klausmeier’s pharmacy ‘gag rule’ bill passes through Senate committee

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Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative President Vinny DeMarco (left) joined Katie Roberts of the Arthritis Foundation and Tammy Bresnahan of AARP Maryland to testify in support of the "gag rule" bill. Photo by Devin Crum.
(Updated 3/7/18)

- By Devin Crum -

A bill to prohibit the practice of so-called “gag rules” between pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) regarding prescription drugs was given a unanimous favorable review by a state senate committee last Wednesday, Feb. 28, in Annapolis.

Seeing no opposition to the bill and that any potential issues had “already been worked out,” the Senate Finance Committee voted on the bill immediately following its hearing Wednesday evening.

“In essence this bill is, if you picture yourself going into a pharmacy and asking for your prescription and you pay $20 for a co-pay and you walk out of the pharmacy and you realize... if you didn’t use your [insurance], it would only cost you $5,” said Senator Kathy Klausmeier (D-Perry Hall), the bill’s sponsor.

She added that such situations come about because of PBMs making agreements between pharmacies, drug companies and insurance companies that bar pharmacists from telling customers about the price difference.

“This bill prohibits [contracts that bar] pharmacists from telling you that the co-pay is more than the actual cost of the drug,” she said.

“It is common sense,” the senator continued. “That pharmacist should be able to tell you, but right now that doesn’t happen.”

Tammy Bresnahan of AARP Maryland, who testified in support of the bill, said the organization surveyed 1,700 members this year about their legislative priorities and more than 80 percent said prescription drug costs were their main concern.

Katie Roberts, with the Arthritis Foundation, said when budgets are tight families have to make a choice between their prescription drugs, school supplies, a family outing and other tough decisions like putting food on the table.

“We strongly feel that consumers and patients should be able to make informed, educated decisions about their health care costs and be able to make price comparisons at the point of sale,” Roberts said. “We need to allow pharmacists to do their job, not only making the relationships with the customers and the patients with that trust, but also helping them inform consumers on the right decision.”

The bill, being pushed by the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, enjoyed concurring support from the League of Life and Health Insurers of Maryland, MedChi and even the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, a PBM organization.

Michael Johanssen, speaking on behalf of PCMA, said the gag rules are not a widespread practice and the association was comfortable supporting the bill.

“We do think it’s the right thing, and many of our members already do this,” he said.

A staffer from Klausmeier’s office confirmed that all parties concerned with the bill were able to come together on acceptable language for the bill that made everyone happy, for which Johanssen said he was appreciative.

Also heard by the committee last Wednesday, albeit not voted on, was MCHI’s keystone bill  for this year’s legislative session, the proposal to establish a Prescription Drug Cost Review Commission. The commission would be able to set acceptable prices for certain drugs and hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for large price increases on drugs, according to the bill which is sponsored by Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore) and co-sponsored by Klausmeier.

Supporters of the commission bill, including the Baltimore City Health Department’s senior medical advisor, Shelly Chu, believe it would build on the success of the price gouging bill which passed last year.

Jane Horbath, with the National Academy for Health Policy, said the bill addresses the transparency of prescription drugs by forcing drug companies to justify their prices and price increases.

Pharmaceutical company representatives, however, testified that the bill could destabilize the market for generic drugs even more than the 2017 law did.

Additionally, they said setting drug prices could decrease access to drugs, especially generic ones, because companies would not be able to make a profit. This, they said, would lead to companies laying off employees and opting not to produce some drugs. read more

Miele opens campaign headquarters as state senate race heats up

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Del. Christian Miele (center, with scissors), cuts the ribbon on his new campaign headquarters in his run for State Senate. Photo by Patrick Taylor.
(Updated 3/7/18)

- By Patrick Taylor -

With the filing deadline for the 2018 Gubernatorial primary passed, races around the state have taken shape. One of the races with the biggest implications in the state is the District 8 State Senate race, which will see Delegate Christian Miele, a Republican, likely square off against incumbent Kathy Klausmeier, a Democrat who has held the seat since 2002.

The race promises to be tight, with Miele receiving the support of Governor Hogan and Klausmeier entering the race with a massive warchest and four terms’ worth of name recognition.

While Klausmeier has the name recognition and funding, Miele thinks he has an advantage over her.

“She can’t run on her record,” said Miele to a crowd of 70-plus at a ribbon cutting event for his campaign headquarters on Saturday, March 3. “The senator is a nice person, but she has unfortunately voted for bills that hurt working families, small businesses and seniors, like voting for the Rain Tax and voting to increase the Nursing Home Tax Act by nearly 40 percent.”

Klausmeier did not respond by press time to requests for comment for this article.

Miele portrayed his campaign as a “grassroots effort” at the ribbon cutting, highlighting his efforts to increase school safety while tying himself to Hogan.

“This campaign is going to be aspirational,” said Miele. “We have so much to work on in our community,” he said, citing growing concerns about school safety and corruption in the county school system.

Just two weeks ago, Miele unveiled a half-dozen bills aimed at increasing security and curbing violence in schools, as well as adding punitive measures for those who bring firearms onto school grounds.

Miele praised Hogan for his work on job creation,  cutting taxes, environmental protection and school oversight, but noted that while Maryland might be moving in the right direction, he thinks Baltimore County is going the other way.

“Baltimore County currently is moving in the wrong direction, and we’re going to get it back on track because we’re all so proud to be members of this community,” Miele said.

Miele was primarily focused on espousing a message of positivity, but he did take aim at campaign contributions to Klausmeier, specifically stating that an overwhelming majority of the donations have come from outside of her district.

“The senator, after a cursory review of her public campaign financial disclosures, takes over 90 percent of her donations from special interests outside the district,” said Miele.

Recent campaign finance reports show that Klausmeier has $194,327.09 in her coffers, with $116,224.99 being rolled over. In the last filing quarter, she reported raising $111,191.05 and spending a little over $30,000.

Of the $111,191 raised last year, $20,000 came from Political Action Committees, while $5,700 came from candidate slate accounts. Notably, Klausmeier has received a decent chunk of change from health and pharmaceutical groups, including Walgreens ($750),  Rite Aid ($500), UnitedHealth ($1,500) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which has given Klausmeier $2,500 to date. She has also accepted $1,250 from Caremark, the prescription benefit management subsidiary of CVS Health.

For his part, Miele has kept things within his district, by and large, with less than half of his donations coming from outside District 8.

Miele’s financial filings are relatively bland, with the freshman legislator raising a shade over $60,000 last year, most of which came from individual donors.

When it comes to Miele’s filing, what sticks out the most is the inclusion of donations from Max Davidson, a patients’ rights advocate who lobbies on behalf of the medical marijuana industry. Since May of 2016, Davidson has contributed close to $1,000 to Miele, and just before the filing deadline closed at the end of February, Davidson filed in District 8 to run as a Democrat to challenge Klausmeier.

A look at Davidson’s donations over previous years show him donating primarily to Republicans, totaling over $1,700 in donations to them. Those include donations to Miele, Delegate Ric Metzgar, Delegate Kathy Szeliga and others around the state. He has also contributed to Democrats, though the amount contributed to Democrats totals just $392.

A post on the website The Seventh State, run by American University professor David Lublin, portrays
Davidson’s entry into the race as an underhanded bid by Miele and Republicans to “soften” up Klausmeier, a charge Miele and Davidson vehemently denied.

“Rather than being eager to take on his favorite state legislator, Davidson’s candidacy smacks heavily of a Republican effort to weaken Klausmeier.,” Lublin wrote. “Davidson presents no real threat to Klausmeier, but Miele would sure love if he softened her up a bit and forced her to expend resources in the primary.”

When asked about the assertion, Davidson called the implication “disgusting.”

“I’m really taken aback by the level of dirty politics that my opponent is undertaking,” Davidson told the East County Times in a phone interview, flummoxed by the implication. “It’s disgusting what they’re doing and they’re trying to make me look illegitimate.”

Miele shared that frustration, stating that “any insinuation that I am beholden to anyone would be a blatant mischaracterization.” He also added that while he accepted money from Davidson, he voted against many of the measures Davidson advocated for, both this year and in 2017.

Davidson said he considered running in other districts before settling on a run for Klausmeier’s seat, but said a chance at the District 8 seat was appealing because it was not a crowded race and it offered the best opportunity to bring about progressive change.

In a conversation with Davidson, he made it clear that he strongly dislikes Klausmeier, saying she “goes against every core tenet I believe in.” But allegations of a plot to undermine Klausmeier via a plant in the primary have no standing, he said.

“I’m disappointed that my opponent’s party is already spreading false information,” said Miele. “I want to run on the issues and I believe that the Annapolis machine is only doing this because she can’t run on her voting record.” read more

Overdose death of local restaurant worker inspires new path of service for Perry Hall man

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John Torsch with a memorial to his brother, Daniel, who died of a heroin overdose. Torsch is working to make the overdose-reversing drug Narcan, and training on how to use it, more readily available to those who need it most. Photo by Marge Neal.
(Updated 3/7/18)

- By Marge Neal -

Perry Hall resident John Torsch lost his brother, Dan, in December 2010 to the opioid overdose epidemic sweeping the nation.

His coping mechanisms to deal with that loss have run the gamut, from resorting to his own methods of self-medication to selling all of his belongings and traveling the world as a free spirit.

“My brother died Dec. 3, 2010,” he said. “And he came to me in a dream in March of 2011 and told me that if I continued on the path I was on, I was going to die.”

John, who had been working with his mother, Toni, to start a foundation in his brother’s name, took the message from his brother as a sign to get his act together. In addition to creating the Daniel Carl Torsch Foundation, the mother and son also started a local chapter of Grief Recovery After Substance Abuse (GRASP).

Always a traveler and an adventurer, John “liquidated his life” by selling all of his belongings. He took the sale proceeds and his savings, minus a “sizable chunk” donated to the foundation, which had just received its nonprofit certification, and hit the globe.

After experiencing adventures that ranged from treasure hunting to serving as personal chef to Richie Booker, Bob Marley’s brother - and living in Marley’s house for a couple of months - John ended the three-year-long wanderlust driven by grief and returned home.

Wearing a variety of hats, John works as a personal chef and spends many hours each week on foundation efforts, including working one-on-one with addicts in recovery. The organization exists to combat drug addiction through prevention, treatment and recovery.

A recent overdose death has carved out a new pathway of service for John to follow.

“Locally, we had a cook die of an overdose in the bathroom of a local restaurant,” he said. “And that got me to thinking about a whole set of people we need to reach in regard to the awareness and availability of Narcan.”

Toni and John Torsch have been instrumental in lobbying state elected leaders to create laws that make it easier to get Narcan - the trade name for naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose - into the hands of those who need it most.

Before laws changed, Narcan could only be prescribed to addicts, according to Toni, who said that made no sense, because that would mean the only person who knew how to use the antidote was unconscious.

Thanks to a statewide standing order signed by Howard Haft, a physician and deputy secretary of Public Health Services with the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, pharmacists can now prescribe Narcan “to any individual who may be at risk of opioid overdose or in a position to assist someone experiencing an opioid overdose,” according to the order.

A person-specific paper or electronic prescription is not required to get the drug, nor is any specific training or education, according to the standing order.

Aside from reversing overdose symptoms, Narcan has no other benefit or dangerous effects. If it is administered to someone not suffering from an overdose, it causes no damage, and it cannot be misused by addicts in search of a high because it does not have those properties, according to John.

Believing that drug use is prevalent among bar and restaurant workers, John is offering free training on the administration of Narcan, as well as donating doses of the life-saving drug to local businesses, including convenience stores and other retail outlets.

“The hospitality industry has such a problem with substance abuse,” John said. “I don’t want that segment of our community neglected so I am specifically reaching out to make this offer.”

Owners of local businesses interested in having the Torsches provide training and a Narcan kit can reach John through email at or by phone at 410-847-4247.

“I often wonder how it would have been if Narcan had been available for my bother,” John said. “He’d probably be here if we had had access to it. But maybe I can prevent someone else from losing a brother.” read more