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Plans for Herring Run are coming together

Frank Klein
Herring Run Park is home to acres of urban nature, including an uncovered sewer access (left), which contributes to herring run's poor water quality (right). Now various government and community forces are coming together to improve it.

By Van Smith | Posted 12/2/2009

Frances Flanigan will be honored at the Herring Run Watershed Association's Annual Gala

Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, Fells Point, Wednesday, Dec. 2, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Where Herring Run flows from Baltimore County into Northeast Baltimore City, between the Mount Pleasant Golf Course and Perring Parkway, its water has a gray tint to it. The scent of sewage, coming from an uncovered sewer stack poking up in the woods, hangs heavily in the air. The uncovered stack is wrapped in neon-orange plastic fencing, presumably put there to mark it as a problem that needs to be solved. A sign advises people to stay out of the water--dogs, too, should probably steer clear of the bacteria-laden stream. Trash--everything from ubiquitous plastic bottles and bags to a Ninja Turtle baby pool--lines the banks, and broken pieces of pipe and concrete lay in the streambed, strewn amid moss-covered ledges, rocks, and downed trees. Ferns poke up through thickets of briars and ivy that cover much of the forest floor, a visible reminder that nature here is tainted by the cast-offs of a heavily populated watershed.

Despite these signs of pollution and neglect, Howard Aylesworth, co-chair of the volunteer-advocacy group Friends of Herring Run Park, calls the stream valley "a gem."

"You don't have to go to Montana to see what the natural environment looks like," he says. "It's right here in the city. People want to see it revitalized in terms of the natural resources, and they are sick and tired of the signs that say 'don't go in the water.' They would like to see it so that their children and their dogs can play in that stream and not have to worry about fecal matter."

Aylesworth and other individuals with a stake in Herring Run's future are now getting involved to see that its potential--especially in terms of water quality--is reached. Aylesworth's group, formed in 2007 in partnership with the 31-year-old Herring Run Watershed Association (of which Aylesworth is vice president), advocates for a small part of the entire city-county watershed, of which the city's Herring Run Park is part.

"I call it a pencil park," Aylesworth says of Herring Run Park, which is bounded upstream by Hillen Road and downstream by the Harbor Tunnel Throughway, "because it is only two-to-four blocks wide and about a mile long."

The city is currently working on a master plan for the park, the first draft of which was released in April, and it caused a stir among some of the park's neighbors. Immediately after the draft plan's release, more than 500 of the park's neighbors signed a petition raising concerns about its emphasis on building recreational facilities. Efforts over the summer to organize the advisory committee, which is made up of leaders of community associations neighboring the park, resulted in regular, ongoing meetings at the watershed association's offices to hammer out detailed suggestions about how the plan can be improved.

This fall the Herring Run Master Plan Advisory Committee (of which Aylesworth is also co-chair) was formed to help the park's stakeholders guide city agencies as they finalize a long-term strategy to improve it. The city's master plan is expected to come up for final approval in early 2010.

In the 1970s, community-based efforts to fix up Herring Run began in earnest. State Sen. John Carroll Byrnes (now a retired Baltimore City Circuit Court judge) ushered through legislation in 1972 asking the state government to survey the stream's needs and come up with proposals to control flooding and pollution, a step that coincided with the formation of the Northeast Organization Against Hydrocatastrophes, a citizen group dedicated to trying to solve Herring Run's flooding problems, and the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Herring Run, which met throughout that decade to steer the city government's priorities in improving the park, concentrating on recreation and control of flooding, erosion, and pollution. Since then, the watershed association has been Herring Run's main advocate for environmental quality. In early 2008, the city stepped in again, announcing its plan to develop a long-term strategy to balance the needs of a natural stream-valley park that also hosts recreation.

One of the problems with the draft master plan, says Aylesworth, was that it relied too much on ambitious, construction-heavy proposals. It emphasized recreation, for instance, in the form of organized sports that would serve as a regional attraction. Decades ago, ball fields and other built amenities were developed in the park, but they've deteriorated to the point that "they basically no longer exist," Aylesworth says, "and people are pleased that this has happened and they don't really want to see it return. Over time, people have gotten more committed to the park as it is today, though they'd like to see it more connected to other areas and they want to see it revitalized in terms of the natural resources--just to be able to walk and have some solitude in a natural setting."

Bill Driscoll, a Baltimore City Hall fixture who in the 1970s was a member of Mayor's Advisory Committee on Herring Run Park, echoes Aylesworth's sentiments. "There was a bike trail, ball fields, paths," Driscoll recalls of the city's improvements to the park three decades ago. "But now, it's all crumbled and gone. The best stuff they did was, like, nothing--just letting the weeds grow on the bank to filter the water, and letting nature take its course."

There are also bigger-picture challenges facing Herring Run, such as water-quality issues. Tending to those will require guiding hands working in concert--something that's already beginning to happen, according to Frances Flanigan, an environmental consultant who advises the Herring Run Watershed Association, among other groups. One of Flanigan's current projects is the Small Watershed Action Plan (SWAP) for the Back River watershed, which includes Herring Run.

SWAP will examine "the different ways that government looks at land and water," Flanigan says, "and figure out, are we being consistent from a water-quality perspective? Where are the problems? How can we address them?" The governments of Baltimore City and Baltimore County are signatories to the SWAP, which was finalized a year ago. Both local governments, Flanigan points out, qualify for federal environmental funding for their participation.

"I was at a SWAP meeting a couple of weeks ago," Flanigan says, "and all agencies from both the city and the county were there. It's very bureaucratic, but also very gratifying to see them there. It's all part of a move to a more comprehensive, unified approach. Things are better--the agencies are better aligned to work across jurisdictions."

Flanigan is cautiously optimistic, though mindful that things don't always go as planned. Flanigan long served as executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, an alliance of organizations interested in protecting and restoring the bay.

"There needs to be a dose of realism--this maybe isn't going to work," Flanigan says of current efforts to improve water quality in Herring Run. "But there is a more optimistic scenario now, in the city and the county, than we've seen in the past. People who sweated over this in the 1970s and 1980s can take some comfort in the fact that their work laid the groundwork for what's happening today. We can talk about how things maybe haven't gotten much better, and we need to acknowledge that's true--in the Herring Run, or the whole Chesapeake Bay for that matter--but they are better than they would have been if nothing had been done."

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