A Three-way Race for Mayor of Annapolis

January 15th, 2017

“Gavin 2017.” That was the bumper sticker I saw in a parking lot the other day. It was the first sign that the 2017 race for mayor of Annapolis is underway. Buckle up. It may get lively.

“Gavin” is Gavin Buckley, the outgoing 53-year-old owner of, it seems, most of the restaurants on West Street, including Metropolitan, Lemongrass, Tsunami, and Sailor. Born in South Africa, raised in Australia, Buckley is Annapolis’ Crocodile Dundee. He sailed into town 23 years ago from Bermuda and never left. He has already filed to run in the Democratic primary next September, hoping to challenge Republican Mayor Mike Pantelides, 33, who has declared for a second term.

State Sen. John Astle, 73, is probably running for the Democratic nomination as well.

“I’m thinking seriously about it,” he says, with a grin and a mischievous lilt in his voice that makes you think he’s made up his mind. “I’m giving it a good hard look.” That is the careful answer of a 22-year senator who is currently enmeshed in another legislative session and doesn’t have to file his papers until July 31.

So, 10 months before the balloting, three candidates are already raising money and shaking every hand they can find.

Who, you might ask, in his or her right mind would want to be the 137th mayor of Annapolis? Most of the mayor’s time is spent arguing with the eight-member City Council over nearly every issue that comes up: new developments, selling the golf course, even promoting the noisy spectacle known as the Nitro Circus. Everything is a battle, everything takes forever.
“This job is a struggle to get to five” votes, Mayor Pantelides explained, referring to the simple majority on the City Council necessary to get anything done. But, he quickly added last week, “I love the job. I enjoy meeting different people and I want to build on what we’ve accomplished in my first term.”

Besides, Pantelides has some $150,000 in his campaign account and no likely Republican opposition for the nomination. He has got much of the business community behind him and the wind at his back. He won by 59 votes last time, out of some 8,000, and plans to do better this time. “I’d be hard to beat for the Republican nomination,” he says cheerfully.

“I enjoyed the job,” says Ellen Moyer, mayor from 2001 to 2009. “I enjoyed helping people.” Then she adds: “But I don’t enjoy the lack of civility, the nastiness of the rhetoric and the character assassination that comes with it.”

Buckley doesn’t sound worried about that. He was inspired to run by his ongoing court battle with the Historic Preservation Commission over the modernist mural on the facade of Tsunami, one of his restaurants. He wants to stand up for freedom of expression and for the arts community. Beyond that, he wants to breathe some life into the city, re-imagine Main Street and City Dock and make Annapolis a draw, like Boulder, Colorado, or Asheville, North Carolina, or Austin, Texas, or Burlington, Vermont.

“I appreciate the city’s history,” he says, “but the historic buildings can be a backdrop to a lot of cool stuff” like music festivals, a cafe culture and, yes, murals. “The mayor should be the promoting officer for the city, its biggest promoter.”

Astle has lived in Annapolis for 46 years. “I love this city,” he says, “I’d like to fix the interior workings of the city, make its government work the way it should.” Describing himself with a smile as “a Democrat who loves dogs, guns and pickups,” he says his has been a life of service, as a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam, a pilot who flew the vice president for four years and retired as a colonel, a police officer in Baltimore, District 30 delegate for a dozen years and senator for 22.

Astle ran for mayor in 1981 and lost by 243 votes. Listening to him, you get the impression he’d like to correct that record.

Then there are the practical considerations: his last three Senate elections have been squeakers he won by less than 1 percent of the vote. He is sure to have strong Republican opposition if he tries again. And, he adds with a good-natured laugh, “It’d be a pay raise!”

A state senator makes $50,000, the mayor $98,000.

Sounds like we have a lively three-way race coming this year.

Campaign Autopsy: Clinton’s 1,000 Cuts

December 12th, 2016

A month after the most surreal, bizarre Presidential election in my lifetime, I find I have almost as many questions as answers.
Not about Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory, which seems clear, unless the Michigan recount and the Electors who actually cast their votes on December 19, decide otherwise.
Nor about Hillary Clinton’s defeat, which, in hindsight, I guess more of us should have seen coming.
Rather, my questions are about why:
Why did Trump win? What combination of the man, the moment, his message, his blatant manipulation of facts and brilliant self-marketing caused the upset?
Why did tens of millions of voters describe Trump as not qualified to be President and vote for him anyway?
Why did Clinton lose? What combination of the woman, the moment, her message and largely self-inflicted wounds caused the result?
Donald Trump’s victory is history-making and fascinating. To come from nowhere, politically, with no prior experience in elective office, little understanding of the issues or the world and a questionable personal reputation, especially with 52 per cent of the population, is nothing short of amazing.
Indisputably, Trump tapped into some deep-seated sentiments in the voting public, exploited them shamelessly and against all odds, pulled off the most remarkable electoral achievement in modern political history. He broke all the rules of American politics, and won. He lost the popular vote, but won the presidency.
Hillary Clinton’s loss is amazing as well.
Arguably the most qualified person to run for the presidency, with deep experience and an intimate knowledge of the issues confronting the nation, the support of her party and a vast campaign chest, she nonetheless lost. She played by the rules of American politics, and lost. She won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes, and lost.
It is not an easy answer. The question was put to 20-some veteran Democratic operatives, many of them White House alumni, at a private dinner Wednesday night in a plush, paneled dining room in Washington. It was a collective autopsy of a campaign they all expected to win. The mood was set at the outset by the host, who passed out “Emergency Canadian Residence Applications” as a gag.
Then, seated beneath a glowering portrait of a long-dead Civil War general, the guests were uniformly critical of the strategy and execution of the Clinton campaign. More in sadness than anger, they described a defeat inflicted by a thousand cuts.
In almost telegraphic shorthand, they ticked off the campaign’s failings: No message…took minorities and women for granted…essentially promised a third Obama term…assumed urban supporters would out-number rural opponents, as they had twice for Obama… failed to address economic concerns of white working class men…expected Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to be in the bag, and on and on.
Victory was always going to be tough, they said, given widespread Clinton fatigue…sclerosis of the Democratic Party…polarizing nature of the economic divide over the last 25 years…public disgust with “the establishment”…the challenge of a “change” election, etc.
Hillary herself came in for sharp criticism for mishandling her email controversy, the on-again FBI investigation, especially Director Comey’s bombshell 11 days before the vote, her sarcastic “basket of deplorables” and her remote style and reluctance to answer questions. She ran like a 20th-century candidate, it was said, in a 21st century election where all the old rules went out the window.
Then a single question stopped the conversation cold. Is it possible, one former senior official said ruefully, that running a woman candidate on the heels of the first black president may have been “a step too far” for the average American voter? “Not a pretty thought,” muttered one guest in the silence that followed.
As the dinner broke up, the guests consoled themselves with the thought that American politics have always been cyclical, that parties that seem devastated usually rise from the ashes, and that, as used to be said among enlisted men in the U.S. Army, nothing very good or very bad lasts very long.

Americans Afloat Choose Change

November 26th, 2016

Some cheered when Donald Trump went over the top, some groaned, some said it was the dawn of a new era, some said it was the end of history, some made comments not suitable for a family newspaper and just about everybody expressed shock.

Six hundred strong, they were part of a floating focus group aboard Crystal Symphony, one of two luxury cruise ships operated by Crystal Cruises, a top-rated company with the questionable judgment to engage me occasionally as a “World Affairs” lecturer, this time aboard a 16-day cruise from Miami to San Diego via the Panama Canal.

It was not a formal focus group, but it functioned as one, with discussions and panels on the campaign before and after Election Day. The group included 20 different nationalities, but the great majority were U.S. citizens and most said they had sent in absentee ballots or participated in early voting, as I did in Annapolis on Oct. 28, before boarding the ship a week before Election Day.

As Crystal Cruises guests, they were not typical; they are older, well-educated, affluent and mostly white. They included more Republicans than Democrats, more avowed conservatives than liberals, some open supporters of Donald Trump, some outspoken backers of Hillary Clinton and a fair number who said they didn’t like either candidate and couldn’t wait for the endless campaign to be over.

In a poll taken Friday, during a final panel discussion, they disclosed how they actually voted: 52 percent for Trump, 38 percent for Clinton and 10 percent for other candidates. It was a more lopsided pro-Trump tally than the national vote, but not different in the outcome. At the same time, a striking 47 percent said they did not believe the president-elect would keep his campaign promises. About 20 percent thought he could and would; the balance said “maybe.”
Using handheld devices, the audience indicated that it thought the most pressing issue in the new president’s in-box was the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice. The audience selected defeating ISIS and dealing with world terrorism as the most urgent foreign policy issue, and creating jobs, repairing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and improving the educational system as the top domestic priorities. Donald Trump, take notice.

The passengers from other countries — they included Brits, Canadians, Australians, Latinos and representatives of perhaps a dozen European and Asian nations — seemed to follow the campaign and election every bit as closely as the Americans. To a person, they seemed shocked by the outcome and worried about the impact a Trump presidency might have on their countries and economies.
The Americans showed their political colors by which cable channel they chose to watch for the election night coverage, The ship stayed studiously neutral by putting CNN on the big screen in one theater and Fox News in another. MSNBC and two British channels — Sky News and the BBC — were available in the staterooms.

Most of the cheering came from the Fox crowd as it became clear that Trump would prevail. Most of the groans came from the CNN-watchers.

Even before Election Day, a man from Florida came up to me after a lecture on the campaign and said, “You know those people who won’t tell pollsters whether they support one candidate or the other and then vote for Trump? Well, I am one of those people. I voted for him before I left Florida.”

When I asked him to explain his choice, he said, “Change. We need change.”

A Florida woman, on the other hand, told me, “I’m a Republican who votes for Republicans. But not this time — not Trump. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for him.”

The Clinton enthusiasts were harshly critical of Trump before the election, calling him totally unqualified. After his victory, they were mostly subdued. “Aren’t you worried?” a woman asked me after Trump’s victory. “I am.”

I am, too.

Grace Under Pressure?

October 9th, 2016

While sensible people are focused on the Annapolis Boat Show, the weather or even Sunday night football, tens of millions of us will tune in tonight to the second Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Second debates in a series of three are not generally all that consequential. But this one could really matter, especially given Trump’s vulgar taped comments on women and his sexual prowess.
Tonight’s encounter at Washington University in St. Louis will establish whether the Republican nominee can control himself and finally seem presidential, and whether the Democratic nominee can keep her cool under pressure and still make her points. A smile now and then wouldn’t hurt either of them.
The first debate at Hofstra University was the most fractious, chaotic and dystopian Presidential encounter in recent memory. In the aftermath, sports metaphors were overworked but apt. Hillary Clinton clearly scored a TKO, if not a knockout, and got a significant bump in the polls in the process. She nailed Trump on race and gender issues and demonstrated a grasp of foreign and security policy that left him flailing about.
Clinton deftly turned Trump’s graceless attack on her “stamina” around and used it to question his. Some of her better lines (“Trumped-up trickle-down”) sounded rehearsed and shopworn, but they made a point.
Trump was focused at first, scoring points on trade and the economy and repeatedly characterizing Clinton as part of the team responsible for current shortcomings at home and abroad. His implicit message: Hillary and the Democrats got you into this mess; I’m the change agent who can get you out.
But, as the debate went on – watch for this tonight – Trump lost his focus, repeated himself , was belligerently defensive about not paying taxes and his bankruptcies and wandered far afield, ascribing the hacking of the Democratic National Committee to an unidentified 400-pound man texting in his pajamas. How’s that again?
Lester Holt, the journeyman moderator, went missing for periods of time and let the candidates punch and counter-punch. Andy Borowitz, The New Yorker’s resident funnyman, even tweeted a missing-persons alert on Holt at one point. But Holt’s restraint also served to reveal the candidates’ competitive instincts.
Tonight, the moderators will be Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, no shrinking violets, who will likely be more assertive. But half the questions are to come from the audience in the town hall format. We’ll have to see how that affects the candidates.
The forecast for tonight’s debate is stormy. Both candidates know there is a lot at stake, and both have ammunition they didn’t use in the first exchange.
Trump can resurrect the “pay-for-play” allegations about the Clinton Foundation, and charge that foreign donors got special treatment from the former Secretary of State in exchange for their contributions. He has already promised to bring up Bill Clinton’s infidelities, even though in the first debate with Chelsea Clinton in the first row he said “It’s inappropriate…not nice.” Apparently it is nice enough when you are behind in the polls in the key swing states.
Clinton has plenty of fodder to use against Trump if she chooses: his latest bragging about his way with women, the undisputed reports that he lost a breathtaking $916 million in one tax year and likely paid no federal income taxes for nearly two decades, and his continued refusal to release his current tax returns. There is the Trump University fraud, the Trump Foundation scam, his more outrageous campaign promises to wall off Mexico, bar Muslims and deport 12 million undocumented immigrants. The list goes on.
Entertainment suggestion: watch carefully tonight when Clinton gets under Trump’s skin, as she is likely to do; watch his reaction and what it does to his train of thought and debate strategy. Then imagine how he might respond to a similar challenge in the Oval Office.
Increasingly, this bizarre campaign is coming down to questions of temperament and emotional stability. Debates reveal those characteristics better than anything. By the end of 90 minutes tonight, we will have a deeper insight into the candidates’ personalities and their grace under pressure – or lack thereof.
Tune in. You can always record Sunday night football.

The Times, It Is a Changin’

September 19th, 2016

The Times, It Is A Changin’

You see it on the front page of The New York Times, live on NBC and across the spectrum: reporters, not commentators or columnists, calling out Donald Trump for lying.
That role used to be reserved for fact-checkers and editorial writers. The reporters would report, others would analyze, or, leave it to the readers.
But that old formula is not sufficient for The Age of Trump. The lies come so fast and frequently, piling up, one news cycle after another, that in some cases, at least, they have to be dealt with immediately, in the initial report. There won’t be time to sort it out later.
Take Michael Barbaro’s excellent news analysis on page one of The Times on Saturday, September 17. The editors chose to make it the two-column lead of the paper, with the news story inside, on page 10. That was another departure: before The Age of Trump, the editors would usually lead the paper with the news story and either twin it with a news analysis or put the news analysis inside, on the jump.
But this lie was so flagrant, so bald-faced, The Times had to deal with it in the headline: “Trump Gives Up a Lie, But Refuses to Repent.” The lie in question, of course, was Trump’s years of insinuations that President Obama was not born in the United States and therefore not qualified to be President.
Barbaro recounted Trump’s assertions to that effect since 2011 and wrote: “It was never true, any of it.”
Katy Tur, on MSNBC, similarly flatly rejected Trump’s claim that it was Hillary Clinton who started the racially-tinged “Birther Movement” and that he, Trump, had “finished it.” Not true, Tur said immediately.
This is not instant analysis, it is competent journalism, a faithful reporting of facts. It is different, necessary in The Age of Trump, and good.

Rising Waters

September 12th, 2016

Lisa Craig’s office window looks out on Main Street, across from Kilwin’s ice cream shop and the Helly Hanson store. Every heavy rain, she gets a vivid reminder of just how vulnerable Annapolis is to the freaky weather that somehow seems normal these days.
“Main Street becomes a river,” she said the other day, “the water pours down over the bricks and curbs into the harbor.”
Lisa Craig’s title is Chief of Historic Preservation for the city of Annapolis. A more apt title would be Chief Drum Beater. Her mission: wake up the people of Annapolis to the existential threats posed by flooding, storm surges, torrential rains and the slow, silent danger of sea level rise.
“When I took this job five years ago, I barely thought about sea level rise,” she says. “Now, I spend 50 per cent of my time on it.”
The most vulnerable portion of Annapolis is arguably its most important: the Historic District, a National Historic Landmark since 1965 that contains 180 of the finest 18th century and later homes and commercial buildings in the country. Total estimated value: $288 million.
The greatest threat to Annapolis and the Chesapeake is unmistakable and beyond argument: as polar ice melts, the oceans warm and the land subsides, the average sea level will rise. Scientists forecast anywhere from one to three feet of elevation by 2100, maybe more.
In that event, the so-called “nuisance flooding” that we saw around City Dock over Labor Day weekend would become more than annoying. Newman Street would become the Newman Canal, unless something is done to prevent it. (The large family of ducks clearly enjoy themselves on the watery pavement now, but even they would have to swim for it.)
Storm surge from a hurricane like Isabel is another grave threat to downtown Annapolis, especially in an era when 100-year storms seem to come along every decade or so.
Last Sunday, The New York Times featured a page-one takeout headlined “Global Warming’s Mark: Coastal Inundation,” with a subhead that read: “Decades of Warnings by Scientists Are No Longer Theoretical.”
Inside, The Times ran a dramatic, full-length graphic of the east coast, showing endangered cities from Boston to Key West. Annapolis was just above the fold, showing a sharp increase in “sunny day” flooding over the last 65 years, from fewer than 10 days-a-year in 1950 to more than 60 days in 2015.
By contrast, low-lying Norfolk, Virginia had just 10 such days in 2015, lower-lying Miami just 14.
That’s the reality and trend line that Lisa Craig is trying to impress upon the Annapolis public consciousness. She has made some progress: under the catchy rubric “Weather It Together,” a loose coalition of city, county, state and Federal agencies have been beating the drum.
They turned out a large crowd to hear oceanographer and author John Englander discuss the threat to Annapolis, and a smaller but interested audience for a day-long, planning seminar on practical solutions. They have held more than a dozen community presentations and enlisted over 1,250 people in public engagement activities.
But, human nature being what it is, namely, not inclined to worry about a problem until it is lapping at the doorstep, no members of the public turned out last Thursday at an open City Hall meeting of the Weather It Together core group to hear a presentation on the devastating flooding in historic Ellicott City in July.
Joe Budge and Ross Arnett, the Aldermen who represent the most vulnerable areas of the city, were there, along with several dozen business and community leaders. They listened as Ellicott City and Annapolis were described as “eerily similar” in terms of vulnerability to flooding.
Alderman Budge, asked where on a scale of one-to-ten he believed Annapolis was in terms of public awareness of the dangers confronting it, he said: “Maybe three or four,” adding: “it will be another year, year-and-a-half before we will have a plan on how to deal with it and what it will cost.”
That is probably right, given that the city’s updated hazard mitigation and cultural resource plan is not expected to be approved before the end of 2017.
In the meantime, as Johnny Cash once sang, “If the Good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise,” Annapolis will stay dry and its historic heart preserved.

Dog Days and Donald’s Taxes

August 14th, 2016

The Dog Days of Summer, that hot, humid period when the dog star, Sirius, rises and falls during the day, are normally a sleepy interlude in the political calendar.
Even in a presidential year, the freshly-minted nominees usually have the decency to take a break after the national political conventions until Labor Day, when the campaigns crank up full speed until election day. The Dog Days are supposed to a breather, when current and former Presidents can play golf on Martha’s Vineyard and harried campaign reporters can catch up on their overdue expense accounts.
Not this year.
In just this past crazy week, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton delivered “major economic addresses,” (have there ever been “minor” economic addresses?) Trump appeared to invite “Second Amendment people” to dispatch Hillary and asserted repeatedly that President Obama and Clinton were “founders” of the Islamic State terror group.
The Clinton campaign fought back with its latest, lawyerly response about her emails and Hillary herself leveled strong denunciations of Trump’s temperament and qualifications for the nation’s highest office.
The coverage of all this has been non-stop, exhaustive and exhausting, taking up newspaper space and airtime that should rightly be devoted to the Rio Olympics and the hot, hot weather.
But one perennial campaign element is missing this year: the public release of the Republican nominee’s tax returns.
Every major party presidential candidate since 1972 has made his returns public. You can find both Hillary and Bill Clinton’s 1040s online back to 2000. Most of the primary candidates issued theirs shortly after filing them in April.
So, what is Donald Trump hiding?
Speculation abounds: interest on loans from Russian oligarchs? Paltry charitable contributions? Less actual income than he claims? Huge debts? Why has he stubbornly refused to release his returns?
The most likely answer is that he pays little or no federal taxes to help fund the government that he proposes to lead. Very possibly zero.
That was the speculative conclusion of tax experts interviewed by The New York Times last week.
“I would expect he’s paying little or no tax,” Steven Rosenthal, a veteran tax lawyer, told The Times. Other experts pointed out that this was likely, and probably legal, given the rich deductions and depreciation that real estate development offers.
Trump himself seemed to confirm zero taxes as his goal when he told George Stephanopoulos of ABC: “I fight hard to pay as little tax as possible.” Asked to name his tax bracket, he snapped: “None of your business.”
Zero or minimal taxes, even on a very large income, could pose a political, rather than legal, problem for Trump. Four years ago Mitt Romney was burned when he reluctantly released his returns and disclosed that he had paid only 14.1 per cent in federal taxes on an income in excess of $20 million. His modest bracket was legal, but politically awkward, contributing to his wealthy, privileged image. At the time, Trump was among the Republican voices arguing that Romney had no choice but to release his returns.
Sensing a political opening, Hillary Clinton released her 2015 personal tax return on Friday, revealing that she and her husband paid an effective federal tax rate of 34.2 per cent on $10.5 million in income from speeches, royalties and the like.
Clinton challenged Trump to do the same, charging that his refusal “defies decades-old tradition of disclosure” by Presidential candidates.
Trump will likely ignore her, arguing again that his returns are under audit. But another wealthy taxpayer, Warren Buffet, a Clinton supporter, said last week that he, too, is being audited and would be happy to meet Trump anywhere anytime to jointly disclose their respective returns.
“You’re only afraid if you’ve got something to be afraid about,” Buffet said.
None of this back and forth is likely to make much difference in November. But if Trump does change his mind and releases his returns, even in the Dog Days of Summer, it will pull back the curtain on a Presidential candidate the public still knows little about.

Random Thoughts(Updated)

July 25th, 2016

Some random thoughts (questions, mostly) on a summer day:

THE TRUMP PARADOX: Is it possible that Donald Trump never expected and, in fact, does not even want to be President? Did he launch his campaign a year ago simply to build his brand? Has he already succeeded beyond his own private expectations? Is his Presidential run a huge con?
I have long suspected as much, and now, I’m told, sources close to Trump have confirmed it to The Washington Post in the course of the reporting they are doing for an instant book due to be published shortly. Trump would never acknowledge it, of course, but it could explain why he has spent so little on national advertising, spurned important Republican endorsements and continued, in speech after rambling speech, to go off the rails with evident disregard for the November outcome. It could also explain why he has not bothered to learn much about the issues the next President will confront.
If you are never going to make it to the oval office, why bother?

THE HILLARY PARADOX: What explains Hillary Clinton’s history of self-inflicted injuries? It goes back, way back, to the lost files from the Little Rock law office right through to her private e-mail servers. Over the years she has done herself more damage politically than all her opponents combined.
Her critics contend that it stems from a superior, above-the-law attitude that they say is shared by both Clintons. Her supporters insist that each case is an innocent mistake, nothing more. Who would knowingly do that to herself, they ask? Who indeed?

THE MEDIA PARADOX: Will the media finally grow up in the way they cover Donald Trump? For more than a year, the cable channels, especially, have given him a fortune in free media, with endless interviews and wall-to-wall coverage of his rallies that have returned record ratings and an advertising bonanza for their parent companies. So much for journalism-versus-the bottom line.
But in recent weeks, it seems, the broadcast networks and major newspapers have fact-checked his more outlandish allegations. His foreign policy speech was a notable example, where the evening news broadcasts challenged any number of his dubious assertions. Stay tuned as the campaign progresses.

THE BILL CLINTON PARADOX: how to handle a former President who is, at one time, the most gifted politician of our time, and a stumbler who can rattle his wife’s campaign with a stunt like his 20-minute airport schmooze with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The campaign may have to confine him to quarters. But he can also lift the entire campaign with a single speech. He is a tremendous asset, until he isn’t.

THE THIRD PARTY PARADOX: Will the Libertarian Party candidates, former governors Gary Johnson and William Weld, win a place on the stage during the Presidential debates in the fall? They need to reach 15 per cent in an average of national polls to qualify, and are not there yet. But will the broad dis-satisfaction with the two leading candidates open an avenue for them?

THE ANNAPOLIS PARADOX: as the self-appointed “Sailing Capital of America,” this city is supposedly full of hardy folk who face down the weather in all conditions. It seemed wimpy of the city to cancel the Fourth of July parade because of intermittent showers, leaving locals and tourists stranded on the parade route.

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Spa Creek Could Actually Get Better

June 12th, 2016

In 1650 or thereabouts, a small band of Puritans sailed up Spa Creek and put down roots to create the town we call Annapolis. Then, as now, the Creek was deep, protected and a modest but safe port. In the 18th century, ocean-crossing ships called in Acton’s Cove. The Creek was first called Todd’s Creek, then Carroll’s Creek and later, Spa.
In those early days, the shorelines were deeply wooded. Today, they are lined with million-dollar houses, docks, boatyards and marinas. None of this improves today’s water quality, but it is better than the old days when the streets and sewers of the historic district ran straight into the Creek.
Now Spa Creek, that lovely, historic heart of Annapolis, is about to get a major makeover.
Three, multi-million-dollar projects on its shorelines are in the permit stage and about to get underway. Together, they have the potential to change the look and feel of Annapolis’s central soul by 2018 or so.
If done right, these three developments could actually reduce the pollution that currently washes into the Creek and improve the quality of its murky water. That’s right: improve it. It is not often that you can say that about development, or any human activity, for that matter.
But for that to happen, the three projects have to be engineered conscientiously, not just meeting existing environmental regulations, but exceeding them, setting an example of what can be achieved when responsible people make the right decisions with an eye towards the future.
“We are very hopeful that Spa Creek is going to improve,” said Amy Clements, the president of the Spa Creek Conservancy, a citizens’ group, that works to upgrade the watershed. She said she was optimistic after meeting recently with officers from the Annapolis Yacht Club, which is behind two of the three upcoming projects, including a new informal clubhouse and pool on the Eastport side of the Spa Creek Bridge.
“Our goal is zero discharge,” said Rod Jabin, the recent past commodore of AYC. “We want to reach 100 per cent containment of storm water runoff from the Eastport site. Now it is up to the engineers and architects to tell us that that is possible.”
Spa is deceptively beautiful, especially on a soft, sunny evening like last Tuesday, when dozens of boats cruised gently up and down the Creek, stand-up paddle-boarders frolicked and the Dragon Boats stroked to their own drummers. People fish and swim in the Creek, although I am not sure I would recommend it. Spa is tidal, but far from pristine..
The Spa Creek Conservancy is trying to clean up the headwaters with the help of a $2.8 million grant and has already made progress in clearing trash from Hawkins Cove.
The three upcoming redevelopment projects could have an even bigger impact. They are all downstream within a few hundreds yards of each other: the Annapolis Yacht Club’s three-story clubhouse on the west end of the Spa Creek bridge that was devastated by a fire last December; the new informal clubhouse and pool on the southeast side of the bridge, and a junior sailing center and offices on the northeast side; and the South Annapolis Yacht Centre, on the site of the former Sarles and Petrini boatyards, which describes itself as a “waterfront destination” with housing, a marina and marine services.
All three projects are deep into the permit process, which, like everything else in Annapolis, is painstaking and slow. But Bret Anderson, the builder who is developing the South Annapolis Yacht Centre, argues that the Eastport sites will inevitably be cleaner than what is there now just by meeting the current requirement that 50 per cent of the storm water and other runoff from impervious surfaces be trapped and treated.
The Sarles and Petrini yards were among the oldest on the creek, built 100 and 75 years ago respectively, when there were no regulations about containing runoff. “They were probably the biggest contributors to pollution in the Creek,” Anderson said. “We are going to make a big difference environmentally.”
Anderson’s plans include rain gardens, planted buffers, green roofs and pervious pavers – all designed to trap runoff. In the nearly four years since he bought the steep, 4.5-acre site from Sarles and Petrini heirs, Anderson has hauled away 19 derelict boats, 17 hazardous containments and 46 tractor trailers full of accumulated rubbish.
The Annapolis Yacht Club plans to rebuild the original clubhouse as it was. But on the Eastport sites, they are committed to introducing innovative runoff controls. Exactly how much runoff they can contain remains to be seen.
None of this will return Spa Creek to the crystal clarity that greeted the Puritans, but, if done right, it will help improve the water quality in a treasured resource.

Terence Smith, a journalist, lives in Eastport. He can be reached at terencefsmith@verizon.net. His website is terencefsmith.com