Oxford, Maryland Addresses Climate Change at Local Level

As the federal government lumbers toward a national climate policy mandating long-term, significant carbon cuts, localities around the country are preparing for rising waters with relative swiftness. Oxford, Maryland’s new shoreline protection fund is a prime example of small-town enterprise.

The National Climate Assessment, released in May, predicted increasingly dire living conditions for U.S. communities in an era of global climate change. Flooding will likely strike seaside communities on the East Coast more than ever. “Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced,” the scientific report said. “Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.”

On June 2nd, the federal government responded with perhaps its strongest climate policy yet. The EPA proposed a new rule that will cut power plant carbon emissions significantly. The new stipulation will lower emissions by 30 percent of their 2005 levels by 2030. Each state will set a unique target. But the rule will not finalize until mid-2015 and then states will have one year to development State Implementation Plans. Provided that it evades crippling lawsuits, the rule will take effect in mid-2016.

But many towns and cities have already suffered a great toll from extreme weather events. Nashville experienced major flooding in 2010 after 13 inches of rain fell in two days. The Cumberland River crested at 51.86 feet, a level unreached since 1937. Last fall’s tidal flooding in Miami Beach ruined commerce and property. In April 2013, about six hundred Chicago buildings were flooded with sewage due to the city’s antiquated wastewater system.

Localities are fighting back now against rising waters. Miami Beach has garnered considerable coverage for its efforts; the city may spend as much as $400 million on water pumps. “Sea level rise is our reality in Miami Beach,” indicated the city’s mayor, Philip Levine. “We are past the point of debating the existence of climate change and are now focusing on adapting to current and future threats.”

Small towns like Oxford, Maryland are adapting, too. Oxford’s experience is a case study in the gumption and patience necessary to orchestrate consensus on climate change. The Environmental Finance Center (EFC), a nonprofit affiliated with University of Maryland at College Park, catalyzed passage of a new flooding mitigation ordinance.

EFC and partners “provided educational outreach and analytical assistance to address recurring stormwater and tidal driven flooding,” according to their project summary. Oxford faces constant pressure from the Chesapeake Bay since its highest elevation is only 11 feet above mean high water line. Projections indicate that the Bay could rise 2 to 4 feet by the end of the century, too.

EFC’s Sean Williamson played a lead role in working with Oxford. Last fall, he joined Oxford citizenry for a town meeting on flooding issues. They discussed EFC’s study of the problem. “We’ve heard from a number of citizens and businesses from the town of Oxford about concerns with the frequency and severity of high water events, concerns about the amount of water on the roads, concerns about being able to leave town when there is a high water event, being able to get to work, or if there’s an emergency if an ambulance can come through,” Williamson said at the time. EFC advised the town to develop a funding mechanism that would allow it to advance its stormwater infrastructure and adapt its shoreline.

This May, Oxford held a public hearing and ultimately adopted an ordinance authorizing a Shoreline Management and Shoreline Protection Fund. The fund imposed a tax of $0.2783 per $100 of assessed real property for town residents.

“It is hard to look at our business that we support and to know that we have put another burden on them, but I don’t think it will be like the burden five or 10 years down the road if we don’t do something now to move ahead,” said Town Commission President Carole Abruzzese.

“I’ve attended the meetings held in the community, read the EFC report, and spoken with fellow Oxford residents about the recommendations,” said Oxford resident Jocke Beebe. “The report lays out the flooding problems here and offers a practical plan for addressing the situation. It’s obviously the right thing to do for the Town of Oxford, surrounded as it is by Chesapeake waters.”

“I came from one side of the bench to the other in full support. I was in opposition of a fee just because of a fee. After some input from Talbot County development committee where I reported we were thinking about doing this and a couple of people at that meeting spoke up…against another tax,” said Commissioner Gordon Fronk. “I was sensitive to what they said and so I learned more and more about the issue through the process and now I am in fully in support of it.”

“Sea level rise and climate change are not mentioned in the ordinance,” said EFC’s Sean Williamson, “Nonetheless, the backdrop of climate-induced sea level rise is not lost on Oxford citizens, many of whom will eagerly share personal observations about increasing water levels or cite scientific research as a reason to address flooding problems before they get out of hand. Ultimately, the causes of increased flooding aren’t that important to Oxford citizens, so long as they have an opportunity to share their concerns and have options for responding to a worsening problem. Helplessness is not an option.”

Oxford’s affluence gave its townspeople more flexibility in choosing funding options. The 2008-2012 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates put Oxford’s median household income at $65,089.

Yet, Oxford’s story should rally more American towns to the cause of climate change mitigation. Even in hard economic times where federal and state dollars run short, university institutions like the Environmental Finance Center can facilitate fundraising for communities. When American localities struggle with climate change issues, they need not struggle alone.