Our Bay: Reducing runoff one lot at a time

Spa Creek Conservancy began with area churches, now tackling car dealerships

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Capital Gazette Communications
Published 12/18/10

Shannon Lee Zirkle — The Capital
Bates Middle School students Gabriele Cunningham, 12, left, and Jessica Wooster, 13, plant a rain garden at the rear of the Annapolis Hyundai dealership on West Street. The Spa Creek Conservancy is teaming up with some car dealerships to install rain gardens that prevent polluted stormwater from running out into the creek and the Chesapeake Bay.

First were the churches. Now, it's the car dealerships.

Members of the Spa Creek Conservancy are methodically going around to the owners of large parking lots in Annapolis, and teaming up to reduce polluted stormwater runoff.

They've worked with several faith communities: Heritage Baptist Church, St. Mary's Catholic Church, St. Martin's Lutheran Church, St. Anne's Parish, Aleph Bet Jewish Day School. They've planted rain gardens, taught kids and helped secure grants.

Now conservancy members are moving on to the car dealerships that line West Street, all of them nearly completely paved over.

Last week, conservancy volunteers, Bates Middle School students and a few employees braved frigid temperatures to give Annapolis Hyundai a green makeover.

They placed St. John's wort, black-eyed Susans and fountain grass in rear gardens. Along West Street, rose bushes were moved to make room for turtlehead, gayfeather and purple coneflowers.

Underneath the plants are layers of soil, sand and gravel, which allow the rainwater to soak in and gradually filter out into the ground - instead of rushing into storm drains and out into the creek.Along the side of the dealership building, "stormwater planters" catch rain that comes down the downspouts.

"This is a real breakthrough, the first one," said Mel Wilkins, a conservancy volunteer.

Despite the chill in the air and the hard ground, landscape architect Anne Guillette said the plants and gardens would survive just fine.

They're all perennials and in a dormant state that allows them to make it though the cold months.

The conservancy will compare data from before the rain gardens to after in order to calculate how much less water and pollution is running off the dealership property.

Annapolis Hyundai President Frank Ferrogine said it was easy to say "yes" when he was approached by conservancy members about teaming up for the project.

He also owns a newer Subaru dealership on Old Solomons Island Road that features modern stormwater controls, so he was familiar with the lingo of stormwater and benefits of the project.

"We certainly were receptive to it. Anything we can do to conserve the bay and environment is important," said Ferrogine, who sticks a "save the bay" license plate frame on all the cars he sells.

Amy Clements, president of the Spa Creek Conservancy, said the dealership has been "fabulous" to work with. Sometimes businesses may be reluctant to work with environmentalists, but that's not the case with Ferrogine and Hyundai, she said.

"We approached them carefully," Clements said. They stressed the project would be a voluntary, collaborative and proactive thing to do.

"We thought it was an exciting model to show businesses can be green," she said.

The Spa Creek Conservancy began attacking parking-lot pollution after a study was done of the entire creek watershed. It identified "hotspots" that could use environmental remediation, including many parking lots.

The creek's watershed is in a highly urban and paved-over area, which means that the best way to help water quality is to undo some of the environmental damage done by development.

While other sources of pollution - such as sewage plants and farms - have slowly been cutting their contributions, urban stormwater runoff actually has increased, according to federal environmental officials.

Churches were a natural first target because of their vast parking lots and the desire of congregants to do good for the Earth. After working with many of the churches, conservancy members are now turning to the car dealers.

The Annapolis Hyundai project is funded primarily by a $33,197 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, $5,100 from Annapolis Hyundai and donations

Annapolis Hyundai will be responsible for maintaining the rain gardens and keeping them in working order.

The Spa Creek Conservancy bestowed its Spa Creek Stewards Award on the dealership at the conclusion of the rain garden planting event.

Next up is Hyundai's next-door neighbor, Rich Morton Lincoln Mercury, in 2011. There, workers will actually tear up part of the pavement as part of the project.

The Rich Morton project will be paid for with a $141,648 federal grant through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, plus a cash match from the dealer as well as donations.

After that, the conservancy has its eyes on other dealers.

"We're going to march down the street," Wilkins said.

(Revised December 2010)