Before Maryland lawmakers even discussed a stormwater fee, the leaders of Highland Beach were on the case.
They had turned the town hall of their 100-home hamlet south of Annapolis into an energy-efficient showcase, only the second building in the state to attain LEED Platinum Status from the U.S. Green Building Council. A green roof holds stormwater, and rain barrels and lush gardens on either side of the building collect much of what it can’t catch.
By the time the Maryland legislature passed a new stormwater law in 2012 that required the state’s 10 largest jurisdictions to create and fund stormwater utilities, Highland Beach was installing solar panels on the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center. The town now makes money selling the electricity it generates — funds that help it operate the abolitionist’s former summer home.
The next year, while many of their Anne Arundel County neighbors were railing against the stormwater fee, Highland Beach’s residents were planting gardens of Virginia sweet spire and high switchgrass, the better to absorb the rain that falls on their streets and keep hazardous chemicals out of the nearby Chesapeake Bay.
And as a gubernatorial election loomed, with some politicians deriding the stormwater fee as a “rain tax,” Highland Beach officials were securing a grant to turn a rare vacant lot in the small community into yet another rainscaping park.
The result: Highland Beach is one of the most desirable communities in one of Maryland’s most sought-after places. What sets it apart is not only its green ethos, but also its history as a town incorporated so African-Americans could enjoy a right that white American citizens took for granted — the right to sit on a beach.
“The people who grew up here, whose grandparents live here, have always had a love of the Chesapeake Bay. Whatever we can do to help the Bay, we want to be able to do it,” said Highland Beach Mayor William Sanders. “We are well aware of our history, and the people who came before us.”
Highland Beach was born in the late 1890s after Frederick Douglass’ son Charles and his wife, Laura, were turned away from the nearby Bay Ridge Inn because they were black. They walked across a footbridge at Black Walnut Creek and met an African-American farmer. He wanted to sell land; they wanted to buy. The Douglasses established a community on the Chesapeake that became a haven for the black leaders of the day. Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall all visited. Charles built a house overlooking the Bay for his father so that Frederick could look across the Bay and see the Eastern Shore — the land where he had been a slave.
Today, Highland Beach retains some of the same characteristics that made it so appealing to Charles Douglass. It is unspoiled, with mostly cottages, a lot of greenery and only a few mansion-type homes. It has a two-lot minimum for building, which has both kept it aesthetically pleasing and allowed it to better control its stormwater. It became incorporated in 1922, the first African-American town to do so in the state, and that allowed it to maintain control over its destiny.
Sanders is the latest in a line of mayors including, Ray Langston and Crystal Chissell, with a bent toward green stewardship. He recently retired as the director of the EPA’s national center for environmental research, where he championed the agency’s effort to green its own buildings.
Sanders’ wife, Zora Lathan, is director of the Chesapeake Ecology Center and a former director of the community greening program at the National Audubon Society. Lathan has taught hundreds of schoolchildren how to plant rainscaping gardens all over Annapolis. She designed the gardens in Highland Beach and worked with her husband to secure grant money for both the gardens and the green buildings projects.
Sanders acknowledged that the combination of his leadership at the EPA and Lathan’s design know-how gives Highland Beach some advantages. But, he says, everything they’ve done can be replicated in other communities.
Erik Michelsen, the former South River Riverkeeper, who now runs the county’s watershed protection and restoration program, was familiar with Highland Beach because of restoration work his organization did nearby. He said he wishes Sanders’ and Lathans’ work had gotten more attention, because then other communities would understand the benefits instead of just the costs. He remembers the buyers of a new home telling him that a project the Riverkeeper group had done to restore a shoreline influenced their buying decision.
“The more stories there are like that, the easier it makes it for other people to adopt those changes,” Michelsen said.
Former West/Rhode Riverkeeper Chris Trumbauer, who represents Highland Beach on the County Council, said that Sanders and Lathan have inspired other communities. Nearby Annapolis Roads and Arundel on the Bay are tackling their stormwater problems, and many leaders of other communities have come through on tours with Sanders and Lathan to collect greening ideas.
Trumbauer says Highland Beach residents “have taken it upon themselves to show good stewardship and live lightly on the land because they want to preserve what they’ve got.”
Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman says Highland Beach has “pushed the envelope. They’re rethinking how to power the structure, not just conserve the power.”
He has introduced Sanders and Lathan to other small-town mayors, hoping the pair can demonstrate how a community with a small tax base can accomplish big reductions in runoff.
“The irony doesn’t escape me that for people who think people of color don’t care about the environment, Highland Beach is a counterweight,” said Tutman, who is also African-American. “I can’t believe that a bigger municipality with more money couldn’t do the same. But they aren’t.”
Sanders is glad that, aside from the election rhetoric, most people have resigned themselves to pay the stormwater fee. Carroll and Frederick Counties are still fighting it. But after a repeal effort in the 2014 legislative session failed, the talk has turned to making sure the fee pays for the right projects.
“Too often, we’re very, very shortsighted in what we pay for and don’t pay for,” Sanders said. “You can pay a little bit now, or you can pay a lot later, when the pollution is out of control…You cannot say, you should not say, ‘I don’t want to pay.’ This fee is necessary. In fact, it is a bargain.”