The story of Oxford, Maryland is like the proverbial good thing that comes out of a small package.
On its own, without being told, the 800 residents of Oxford through their elected Town Commission voted on May 14 to increase their own property taxes in order to deal with rain water that runs off city streets and parking lots into Town Creek and the Tred Avon River.
Why is rain a problem, you might ask?
Like a hook of land jutting into the Tred Avon, Oxford is only 11 feet above sea level at its high point. During storms, especially when the tide is high, the streets and crawl spaces under people's houses often flood. The town pays dearly and repeatedly in maintenance costs and damages.
About three years ago residents started talking . . . With each other . . . With outside groups.
They talked at the community boat ramp as they splashed their skiffs. The ramp, they realized, is an asphalt funnel. During storms, rain water from nearby streets and parking lots gushes down the ramp. Similarly, it runs quickly off numerous hard surfaces in the town directly into the creek and river. Town Creek overflows like a bathtub with the faucet left on.
Residents Barbara Paca and her husband started talking to neighbors. The couple had recently refurbished a property on Mill Street for their business. They had taken pains to make their new building green—to capture and filter rain water before releasing it slowly. Paca wanted to know if her neighbors might take similar steps at their homes and businesses.
Pretty soon all these conversations started to coalesce. How could Oxford slow down and soak up runoff throughout the town before it swelled Town Creek? And how could the little town pay for this work?
Alan Girard, CBF's Maryland Eastern Shore Director, got involved. He helped write a grant to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. That money allowed the Environmental Finance Center (EFC) at the University of Maryland to study Oxford's plight. Town leaders, various environmental groups, businesses, and county officials joined in the conversation.
The EFC study concluded Oxford needed some form of dedicated funding to finance a host of runoff-reduction projects throughout town and to upgrade the town's old stormwater infrastructure. Several town meetings were held. Slowly, gradually, residents started to see the big picture. The work that wetlands once did along the water's edge--before they were filled in--would have to be replicated by man-made projects that mimic nature. Investing now meant savings in the future.
Residents also came to see an added benefit. The work could help clean up pollution. Runoff carries pet waste, oil, chemicals, and other pollutants into local water. Town Creek is officially designated as impaired by nutrient pollution. Talbot County Creekwatchers consistently finds the water of the Tred Avon with nutrient levels five times healthy levels! And so it became clear that action was needed.
The key to Oxford's success?
"I think it was through a lot of hard work, a lot of education," said Town Council President Carol Abruzzese. "We worked with the University of Maryland which did extensive workshops and educational seminars that went on for almost a year. We used everything from rain barrels to photos to bringing residents in in small groups."
It's not that there wasn't some resistance. Oxford is one of Maryland's oldest towns. It almost feels like time has stood still there with a general store and Victorian homes along its main street and a ferry service that's been in operation since 1683.
Abruzzese and former councilman Peter Dunbar agreed that a key was convincing skeptics that the money raised would be dedicated solely to real improvements in the existing stormwater infrastructure and installing new projects. Dunbar said the next challenge is making sure the work gets done, so people can see the results.
And just as Barbara Paca realized that one business owner alone can't solve the flooding problem, Oxford alone can't solve all runoff issues into Town Creek. Dunbar notes, for instance, that an 80-acre county park at the headwaters of Town Creek, and farm fields beyond, contribute considerable polluted runoff to the Creek. He hopes Talbot County will do its part.
That's the whole point of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, the regional plan to finish cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. It asks all six states and local areas in the Bay watershed to do their fair share. Each county in Maryland, for instance, including Talbot, has been asked to create its own plan for reducing pollution from runoff, farms, sewage, and other sources within its borders.
Little Oxford can be an inspiration to larger jurisdictions. We can do this.
—Tom Zolper, CBF's Maryland Communications and Media Coordinator
Photo: Tilghman Street in Oxford, Maryland during a rain storm. Photo by Cheryl Lewis.