by Ola-Imani Davis
June 29, 2020
From New York to Virginia, Chesapeake Bay watershed communities all have unique needs regarding their local lands and waterways. Helping to find common ground between local priorities and the restoration needs of the Chesapeake Bay is the Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC). Comprised of governor and DC mayor-appointed local elected officials from all over the watershed, LGAC relies on the intimate knowledge of local jurisdictions to advise the Chesapeake Executive Council, which establishes the policy direction for the restoration and protection of the Bay, on how to most effectively engage local governments and implement projects across the watershed. The following longtime LGAC members represent communities in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania—their several decades of combined experience reveal the unique role that LGAC plays in Chesapeake Bay restoration.
Supervisor Penelope Gross (Fairfax County, Virginia)
Representing Fairfax County, Virginia, Supervisor Penelope Gross is a 20-year LGAC member, having served as chair of the committee from 2006-2007, and is a current member of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors. Over her two decades serving in LGAC, Gross has witnessed significant improvements to Bay health, such as the positive returns of fisheries, underwater grasses and improved water quality in major Bay tributaries. Though when it comes to engaging local governments and their constituents, Gross prefers to reference local waterways over the Bay itself. “So many watershed residents will never see the Bay, but they know about their local streams,” said Gross. “Make the focus their backyards, and the buy-in gets better.”
Gaining the momentum needed to uphold land conservation and water quality standards in local municipalities can be a challenge. Working within her own jurisdiction, Gross made a motion in 2004 as the chair of Fairfax County’s Environmental Committee to implement the County’s first 20-year Environmental Excellence Vison Plan. The plan demonstrates Fairfax’s focus on issues including, but not limited to, land use, waste management and environmental stewardship. Years later, Gross was an LGAC member when the committee recommended to the Chesapeake Executive Council the creation of a “circuit rider” program. Circuit Riders provide expertise to help localities, who do not otherwise have the resources, plan and implement restoration. This recommendation eventually prompted a circuit rider pilot project, in York County, PA, that supplied local governments with support for technical assistance, grant writing, proposal preparation, project management and identification of funding options.
With extensive knowledge of local jurisdictions, LGAC members such as Gross help the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council understand the various challenges and needs of local entities. “Legal structures and authorities, funding streams (or lack of), topography and geography and ‘culture’ all play a role in what, and how we might, get things accomplished,” said Gross. “LGAC provides a robust venue for that discussion and subsequent understanding.”
Councilman Kelly Porter (The City of Seat Pleasant, Maryland)
Councilman Kelly Porter has served on the Maryland delegation of LGAC since 2004 and is the current At-Large councilmember to the city of Seat Pleasant. He’s lived in the city for over twenty years and has participated with the city council since being elected councilmember of the city’s Ward IV in 1996.
Over his 16-year LGAC membership, Porter has seen major strides in restorative practices that influence the Bay, including the restoration of oyster beds, increased knowledge of constructing and maintaining green infrastructure, the adoption of riparian buffer usage on local farms and more specifically, the reduction in pollution to the Anacostia River in Washington, DC.
Having been an active LGAC member for nearly two decades, Porter understands the importance of perseverance in environmental work, stating, “You will have set backs, especially when it has to do with the environment.” Porter’s experience with LGAC has inspired him to push environmental initiatives within his own community, such as the Small Smart City initiative, which uses wireless technology to enhance local government transparency, improve city-maintained energy use and develop innovative trash collection methods, among other services.
As he continues his participation on LGAC, Porter hopes that members will continue to amplify Bay awareness, advance local environmental literacy, encourage youth involvement and foster growth among their adjacent communities.
Commissioner John V. Thomas (Hampden Township, Pennsylvania)
Commissioner Thomas has been a member of LGAC’s Pennsylvania delegation for over 10 years. As the President of Hampden Township, Pennsylvania’s Board of Commissioners, he has served since 2007 and is also currently a member of the Hampden Township Sewer Authority.
Reflecting on Hampden Township’s environmental strides, Thomas explained that the township was the first locality in Pennsylvania to use the state’s legislated stormwater funding resource. Using that resource, the township initiated a stormwater fee that provides funds to install rain gardens, identify and correct aged sewage pipes, establish a stormwater credit program for local businesses and create strategies to reduce flooding and sediment runoff to local streams. As a member of the Hampden Township Sewer Authority, he has also helped to facilitate the repair of failed stormwater pipes on private lands. Thomas has also used his platform in environmentalism to speak with local school districts in order to encourage hands-on lessons in environmental science.
In participating as a member of LGAC, Thomas makes a point of experiencing local practices around the watershed first-hand. In spending time in and around his own local waterway, the Conodoguinet Creek, Thomas has been able to better identify the challenges it faces, stating, “I could bring ideas back to the township’s board that I hoped would influence the quality of the Creek which in turn, will help the Bay.”
Thomas is happy to see an increased focus on Bay wildlife – specifically oyster populations. “In my early days as a member, I promoted the concept of helping the Bay by having areas set aside for non-harvesting of oysters,” he recalls. As far as what he wants to see for the future of LGAC, he joked, “I want to see it go away!” Elaborating, Thomas said, “I want to see that [LGAC] accomplished [it’s] goal and satisfied what the public wanted – I want to say we are done and the Bay is clean.”