The Bureaucratization of Environmentalism – can we survive good intentions?

[Update: This post has spawned a fair bit of discussion and represents many things that are wrong with the current way in which we as a society approach environmental problems.  This quaint little bridge is an apt metaphor for the fork in the road, which will always present choices, some of which are better and more correct than others.  Which path we pick is often influenced by competing factors.  A path that is selected solely for monetary reasons, disregarding all other sensibilities, will invariably be the wrong path chosen.  An aspirational goal for government ought to focus on eliminating those barriers – or helping build the bridge – to our picking the more correct path.]

IMG-20130217-00020Sarah Palin has her bridge to nowhere story. This is my story of the bridge to somewhere – a 24 foot 11 inch bridge that spans a beautiful little perennial creek that bisects my neighborhood into Rockville and North Potomac.  And a bridge whose history made me madder than hell – and still to this day makes me shake my head in amazement.

Our’s is a picturesque community, Fallsmead, right off of I-270 several miles outside of Washington, DC.  Home to 292 families, it was established in the late 1960s as one of the first “cluster” developments in Montgomery County.  It’s a wonderful place to raise a family, filled with all those things that create a deep sense of community and connection to one’s environment.  Although it was a time when we had just landed our first manned space craft (Apollo 11) on the moon, we didn’t have a clue about the negative environmental impacts caused by the urban jungle, but especially stormwater runoff.

This small unnamed tributary flows into Watts Branch, then into the Potomac River, and ultimately to the Chesapeake Bay, which is slowly making a come-back discussed here.  My daughters and I often make a fun summer’s morning exploring the stream, catching salamanders, fish, crayfish, and benthic insects and studying the footprints of deer and raccoon foraging along its banks.  It’s your typical urban stream with lots of hidden beauty and intrigue, struggling to maintain some sense of wildlife habitat and water quality, repeatedly ravaged by torrential storm flows cascading from too much impervious roads, roofs, and driveways that main-line from a highly effective storm sewer system, doing exactly what it was intended to do.

Shortly after moving to Fallsmead in 2005, I agreed to serve on its Board, charged with governing and overseeing the care of the community, including the lovely 36-acre green space where this stream meanders through its beautiful forests.  Like much of the Nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure, three culverts spanning the community’s stream were failing and in need of a little care.  All were undersized, causing problems for water quality and restricting fish and other aquatic critters from moving freely between upstream and downstream habitats.

In 2007, during a particularly wet Spring, one culvert finally let loose.  Naturally, the Board began to consider all options, removing the culvert altogether, conducting a temporary  fix, replacing the culvert with a new one, or erecting a pedestrian bridge.  Cost was obviously a big consideration for this small community, as all members would share equally the expense.  For years, the community had opted for the $2K – $3K quick “dump and run” concrete and asphalt patch, performed without permits or authorization.   Not exactly the most environmentally responsible thing to do – but completely understandable, given the costs and the fact that that was just the way things were done back then.  This time around, however, I advocated for an environmentally friendly pedestrian bridge that, although costing more, would help improve water quality and improve the aquatic habitat.   (As an aside – Trout Unlimited and Orvis have teamed to promote the removal of environmentally damaging culverts to improve fish passage that can be found here.)

Although the bridge project was estimated at around $80K, I felt strongly that it was the right choice for the environment and would be the better economic choice in the long run by eliminating the small but periodic costs for temporary fixes.  I was prepared for the pushback for a new bridge due to the economic burden on the community – including many elderly on fixed incomes.  Not an easy decision by any means.  But what I wasn’t prepared for was what happened next.

During the robust discussions, I advised the Board and community that all options being considered – including temporary patches – would require government permits and authorizations.  But despite my counsel, some still believed due to costs that the community should proceed without permits.  Once, again, I made an impassioned plea to the Board and advised that if the community opted for a course which I knew to be illegal, I would be compelled to resign from the Board.  At one point, I was even approached by several prominent members of the community who strongly argued my resignation because, according to them, it was in the best financial interest of the community.  I recall feeling surprised and disappointed by those who I knew considered themselves environmentalists (and to those who might be thinking “those damn Republicans” – no, all who were advocating my resignation were politically left-leaning).

Notwithstanding my public flogging, the Board unanimously agreed to proceed with the bridge and obtain all the necessary permits.  We promptly hired a contractor and busily got to work.  And within several months of the project kickoff, we had applied for and received all the necessary federal Clean Water Act approvals from the Corps of Engineers and the State of Maryland.   Everything seemed to be going swimmingly well.   However, what I could not anticipate was that it would take another two years to obtain the myriad of local permits and approvals from our local government.  There was the sediment control plan and permit, then you had the public works permit, and of course the stormwater management plan and permit, then there was the flood plain study review and of course the flood plain variance, and oops we can’t forget the natural resource inventory and forest stand delineation, and finally – yes finally – the forest conservation plan review.  The fees for these local permits alone, notwithstanding the cost of paying the engineering company to prepare the plans and applications, were nearly $10K.

Now, for those of you not from the DC area, Montgomery County MD is known for being one of the most progressive local jurisdictions in the U.S. when it comes to passing laws aimed at protecting the environment.  Not at all a bad thing, but as this story unfolds, you’ll begin to understand the problem.  Fast forward two years.  After surviving a community mutiny and convincing my very unhappy fellow neighbors that a bridge was the right decision, our community was no closer to finishing jumping through all the hoops of the local government.

The last straw – where I finally went orbital – was the forest conservation plan.  The only environmental casualties of the construction were six small trees – tulip, ash, and oaks – not at all uncommon in the area.  Sadly and stupefyingly, we spent nearly $8K on a forest conservation plan to save and replace those six frickin trees.  And we were required to submit the application for review not once, not twice, not thrice, but five times.  Enough was enough . . . I could stand this insanity no longer – so I shot off the following respectful, reserved but angry missive (my inner voice was not so reserved):

Dear {removed to protect the guilty},

The community of Fallsmead has incurred over $40,000 to date to seek the City’s approval for this pedestrian bridge.  This process has now taken over two years, and we have yet to receive final approval.  From my perspective, our engineers have done a terrific job and have been extremely responsive to the myriad of requests from the City.  The fact that this is the “Fifth” FSD FCP Review suggests that something is terribly broken with the process.  I think the community would have gladly planted 100 or even 500 trees, and spared us the time and thousands of dollars spent preparing a forestry plan for a half-dozen trees.  It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.  Given the tough economic times we find ourselves in, the expense to properly maintain a community such as ours continues to escalate – and this does not help.  I am no longer on the Fallsmead Board, so do not speak for it, but I do speak as a tax paying citizen of Rockville who believes this entire process has been a colossal waste of the taxpayer money, extremely anti-community, and anti-environment.  I am hopeful that this entire nightmare of a process will conclude very soon.  I do intend at some point to meet with the Mayor to express my dismay with this entire permitting process.  Thank you.

Of course I never heard back and never met with the Mayor, but holy ash tree . . . I felt much better.  To be clear, I do not question the sincerity, motivation or good intentions of the City employees involved in reviewing and permitting our bridge.  All of them were simply doing their job – quite zealously I might add.  But what I question are the unintended consequences of what I call the bureaucratization of environmental protection and stewardship.  Doing the right thing isn’t always the most expedient or cheapest course of action, but when government makes it more difficult to lead society to the right decision, that’s a real problem.  In this case, it had become extremely difficult to convince others to do the right thing and opt for the environmentally preferrable course of action.  Not only was there no incentive in this case for our community to do the right thing, but there was every incentive to do the wrong thing.

As discussed in this blog here  and here, when government fails to establish the right incentives, we should not be surprised to learn of society’s response, which may be exactly opposite of that which is intended.  It’s also another reminder of the “silo effect” where the compartmentalization of authority and decision-making, absent proper governance and leadership, can lead to waste and inefficiency.  In this story, as with many others, it was good intentions that created the wrong incentives and produced the wrong motivations.  If we as a society are to make progress toward fixing our pressing environmental problems, we must endeavor to find and implement the correct incentives – motivating positive human behavior – and govern ourselves in such a way as to minimize the silo effect – neither an easy feat, but lofty goals worth pursuing.

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Happy to report that the stream is doing better and jusimagesCA1933DEt last summer my girls and I discovered a rosy-sided dace, never before found in our stream . . . and a sign that the bridge was the right decision.  And the community is in the process of replacing another culvert with an environmentally friendly bridge.