Paving Paradise
20 min read

Paving Paradise

Sunrise over the Mitchell property on Perryman Peninsula. Source: Baltimore Sun

For the residents of Perryman Peninsula in Harford County, Maryland, the days are marked by the sun rising over the Chesapeake Bay to the East and settling behind the Bush River to the West. When British explorer John Smith sailed the Chesapeake in 1608 he eloquently described Perryman and other bayside peninsulas as, “Heaven and earth seemed never to have agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.” Much of that natural beauty still remains. Bald Eagles nest along the shores of the Bush River and swaths of fertile cropland stretch across the horizon. The area's history, environment, and rich natural resources make Perryman Peninsula an idyllic Maryland community, where 19th century Victorian-style homes dot two-lane country roads and residents have pride for the land, and its history. However, that land is quickly changing. Despite the area’s immense natural value, the peninsula is being redeveloped for distribution centers to serve the region's ever-growing demand for online shopping and rapid delivery services.

860,000 square foot Tower Logistics Center in Perryman. Source: Merritt Properties

Local Problems, Global Forces 

For e-commerce companies and large retailers like Amazon, moving goods from the factory floor to a customer’s front porch within days — or even hours — requires an intricate delivery system often utilizing ships, ports, trains, trucks, and distribution centers. Distribution centers are dedicated to storing, sorting, and shipping goods, often just before they reach the last mile and consumers. Close proximity to both ports and consumers necessitates siting distribution centers along transportation corridors, like near Interstate 95 between Baltimore and Philadelphia and Northwest to Hagerstown, Pennsylvania, on Interstate 81. Distribution centers located in this area can reach two-thirds of the US population within a 24-hour truck drive. These facilities, colloquially called mega warehouses, live up to their name, often with over one million square feet of warehouse space on hundreds of acres of land. The growth of the e-commerce industry, sparked by changes in consumer habits and the COVID-19 pandemic, has spurred rapid development of mega warehouses, often at the expense of surrounding communities.

Maryland Mega Warehouse Growth

States like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland are hotspots for distribution centers. According to tax parcel records, Maryland, in particular, has seen a 260% increase in mega warehouse space since 2000, rising from 19.7 to over 51 million square feet in 2021. Many distribution centers are built in existing industrial parks like Amazon’s complex in Sparrows Point, near the Port of Baltimore. However, dwindling industrial space suitable for large distribution centers have pushed developers towards farming and residential communities with expansive tracts of undeveloped or lightly developed land. For some communities, the social and environmental costs are substantial. They call into question the promises of economic gains and the supposed role of local and state governments to ensure sustainable development. Nowhere is this more evident than Perryman Peninsula. Over a dozen distribution centers have been built there in the last 20 years, dramatically degrading the landscape, threatening resident’s health, and damaging the environment in the process.

Perryman Peninsula 2014 - 2021. Source: ESRI Wayback

Perryman’s Landscape Legacy 

The Perryman Peninsula has seen many cycles of change since European colonization. Originally inhabited by Iroquois, the first European contact came with John Smith’s Chesapeake voyage in 1608. Settled by Episcopalians, Perryman would quickly become a productive agricultural peninsula relying heavily on slave labor. A census in 1771 counted a total of 1,440 people. Roughly 55% of the population was White and 45% Black, approaching equal Black and White populations, a ratio typically seen only in southern plantation states. After the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865 and slavery abolition, the agricultural industry shifted towards corn canning, utilizing exploitative company labor. Perryman would change again when in response to World War I, Congress purchased 69,000 acres of peninsula land for Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) from farmers, many of whom were Black descendants of the area’s intensive slaving past. Moving into the 20th and early 21st century, Perryman would become a quintessential Chesapeake town, a mixture of farm fields and waterfront residential development, with close knit community ties based on their rich, complex history. However, in the last 20 years, the landscape of Perryman itself, and its history, are being paved over for distribution centers to feed an ever growing demand for direct-to-consumer goods.

Perryman Peninsula and Maryland Mega Warehouses  

With wide open spaces, low population density, and close proximity to urban communities, Perryman Peninsula became an ideal location to site industrial warehouses. Clorox built the first modern industrial facility in the area in 1992. The Clorox company subsequently opened another facility in 1998, employing nearly 200 people; this marks a critical turnaround point, as Perryman began transitioning from farming and canning to industrial uses, like warehouses and distribution centers. Enabled by local zoning changes from agriculture to “light industrial” in the early 2000s, distribution center development exploded on the peninsula. At the turn of the century, large tracts of farmland were converted into warehouses for rapidly growing companies like Bob’s Discount Furniture, Wayfair, and Amazon. Historic land owners continue to sell off their property for development, despite intense opposition from neighboring residents. One such family, the Mitchells, are at the center of controversy.

For Sale by Owner

The Mitchell family was the driving force of Perryman’s historic canning industry. In the 1920s, F.O. Mitchell & Sons, Inc., produced 200 tons of canned corn per day. The company would operate until the mid 1980s. At its height, the Mitchell family owned approximately 1,000 acres of Perryman Peninsula land as of 2012, becoming the single largest private landowner, according to tax parcel records. In 2015, the Mitchells sold 208 acres of their property along the border of Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG). That property is now home to three distribution centers and another under development. The historic canning buildings still stand, vacant and in disrepair, beneath the shadow of a 672,00 square foot Bob’s Discount Furniture warehouse.

Excerpt from Mitchell Property plan, December 2021. Source: Chesapeake Development Group

The Mitchell family plans to sell an additional 711 acres of property in the center of Perryman to the Chesapeake Real Estate Group. If the deal goes through, the land will house the third largest distribution complex in the country, including one building that will become the eighth largest in the country. The development will offer 5.24 million square feet of warehouse space for lease, equivalent to over 90 American football fields. Perryman residents unhappy about the development have limited recourse. As an unincorporated community, Perryman Peninsula has no direct representation; it’s governed by the seven-member Harford County Council and the Harford County Executive. As a result, proposed legislation addressing distribution center development must be heard at the county level. Without a town council and the resulting power over issues like zoning and construction, Perryman residents lack the political agency to approve or reject zoning and construction projects in their community. To influence the decision-making process, residents must articulate their grievances in Bel Air, the county seat and a 25-minute drive from Perryman. Construction projects call for a series of county, state, and federal permits, requiring social and environmental impact statements, traffic studies, construction plans, and other documents. As long as these permits are approved, residents have little say in whether the project moves forward. Neighbors first learned of the plans in November 2021, when notices about the development were sent to residents; reportedly, 73 were distributed. At the first Community Input Meeting in December 2021, nearly 300 people showed up to voice their concerns. Following that meeting, Perryman residents organized to form the Protect Perryman Peninsula coalition (3P), citing nuisances from existing distribution centers, quickly dwindling undeveloped land, and potential threats to wells that provide drinking water to a third of Harford County's 250,000 residents.

Truck stuck on Riverside Parkway median near Perryman. Source: 3P's Facebook Page

Truck Trouble

The impacts of distribution centers on Perryman Peninsula are immediately evident, from trash to traffic. Perryman residents complain of insufficient infrastructure to support heavy tractor trailers, like proper turnarounds and sleeping facilities, leading to damaged roads and rampant litter. The two-lane Perryman Road, the only major access to and from the peninsula, sees over 2,000 trucks and nearly 3,000 cars per day, according to Maryland Department of Transportation traffic data collected on the route 715 roundabout to Perryman Road. Long lines of trucks queue up along the narrow dirt shoulder, waiting to drop off and pick up loads. On the 3P Coalition’s Facebook page, residents catalog dozens of photos showing tractor trailers cutting corners through neighborhood yards, often obliterating signage and residents’ mailboxes in the process. Residents — and there are only 2,397 of them — note waiting nearly 30 minutes to leave the peninsula during the 3 p.m. shift change, when warehouse workers leave and arrive on the peninsula en masse.

Walmart Fire in Plainfield Indiana. Source: Channel 13 WTHR

Traffic issues impact the ability for fire, police, and emergency medical services to reach the peninsula. The City of Aberdeen Fire Department Chief was quoted by resident Chip Reilly as saying, “Emergency response times in Perryman have risen to 13 minutes during normal traffic conditions,” posing significant risk in the event of a traffic accident or warehouse fire, like the Walmart fire in Plainfield, Indiana, in March 2022. The Fire Chief also said that between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., when the shift change coincides with rush hour, the roundabout on Philadelphia Road “routinely had trucks backed up, so response times will be longer.” The worsening traffic conditions are corroborated by locals. During a protest against the development, a resident was asked to describe the effect of distribution centers on the community; his response was, “One word: dangerous.” He then relayed that an elderly resident is afraid to leave her driveway, fearing an accident from the constant traffic. Residents and regulatory agencies are worried additional warehouses will exacerbate the issue. The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) and Harford County found glaring deficiencies in the traffic study submitted by the Mitchell project developers, including “significantly low” traffic volume estimates and “insufficient measures” to ensure truck traffic stayed off Perryman Road. State and County officials left 37 comments in the report, calling for an entirely new study and traffic counts. Citing these shortcomings, Paul Fallace, head of 3P, said, “It is inappropriate for the zoning and inappropriate for the residents with one way in and one way off the Peninsula.” Calls to increase the access and infrastructure in Perryman have been made for nearly 20 years to help alleviate congestion though little has improved.

Litter from Distribution Centers in a Perryman Creek. Source: 3P's Facebook Page

The Harford County Government is investing in some road improvement projects, but it has yet to demonstrate reduced impact caused by high truck volume. A proposed connection from Maryland Route 715 to the dead-end Woodley Road on the northern end of the peninsula has been stalled ever since APG forbade public access to the adjacent electrical substation it uses to power the grounds, citing national security concerns. Although Harford County has planned improvements to Spesutia Road, a car-only access point from the north of Perryman, the capacity for truck traffic onto and out of the peninsula has not increased. Despite promises from state and local politicians and pleas from residents and emergency responders to build the short connection from Woodley Road to Route 715 before permitting new development, distribution centers continue to be built.

Dead-end of Woodley Road and APG substation. Source: The Commons

Something in the Air

Beyond the visible issues of tractor trailer traffic, the 18 wheelers contribute additional harm to community members, notably air, noise, and light pollution. Locals have always been accustomed to their homes shaking from the rumble of daily ordinance testing at APG, but they weren’t ready for the noise pollution caused by the trucks. For instance, the sound of trailer doors banging open and closed through the night creates chronic sound disturbances. A lifelong Perryman resident was never bothered by routine bomb testing, but “couldn’t handle” the sound of banging doors. Noise pollution over 70 decibels can induce hearing loss and is correlated with poor sleep quality, depression, and increased blood pressure. Data from the US Department of Transportation shows Perryman Road averages 50 to 60 decibels over a 24-hour period. Additionally, many locals cite persistent light pollution as a major nuisance. Distribution centers often operate 24/7 with stadium style lighting. Residents living adjacent to facilities report not being able to sleep, with industrial lighting pouring into their homes and no requirements to dim or reduce illumination. Just like noise pollution, light pollution also affects resident’s sleep quality, and it can lead to chronic fatigue, headaches, anxiety, and stress. Although nuisance from litter, sound, and light from distribution centers has a detrimental effect on residents, the air pollution from constant truck traffic in close proximity to residential areas poses the most significant risk to human health.

Emissions from tractor trailers. Source: EPA

Scientific literature has robustly correlated emissions from diesel trucks with a host of health impacts. Combusted diesel fuel releases PM2.5 — particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns that embeds itself into lung tissue, and leads to asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses. New research shows PM2.5 has the potential to exacerbate and even cause lung cancer. Nitrogen oxides from diesel combustion present additional risks, causing headaches, asthma, wheezing, coughing, and increased hospital visits, particularly for younger and older populations, according to the American Lung Association. Nitrous oxides can also form ozone, a cancer-causing compound. Maryland has made strides in reducing ozone, largely produced by coal burning power plants across the state; however, averages are still above EPA standards and a hotspot directly over Perryman Peninsula persists, likely due to emissions from transit pollution and ambient air patterns. As a consequence, Perryman ranks in the 90th percentile for cancer-causing air pollution when compared to the rest of Maryland, according to EPA’s EJScreen data.

Maryland Ozone 2021 estimates. Source: Maryland Department of the Environment

Although increasingly stringent diesel emission standards from the federal government have reduced air pollution, particularly nitrous oxides and greenhouse gases, research from Europe shows that combustion accounts for only an estimated 55% of traffic-related air pollution. Particulates from brake dust are particularly harmful, not only affecting respiratory systems in a similar way to nitrous oxide and PM2.5, but also increasing the prevalence of neurological diseases and weakening the immune system. These fine metallic particles, known as magnetite nanoparticles, are small enough to pass through the blood, hampering white blood cell activity and embedding themselves in the brain, leading to depression, dementia, and even Parkinson's disease. A study from British Columbia found that “for non-Alzheimer's dementia and Parkinson's disease specifically, living near major roads or a highway was associated with 14% and 7% increased risk of both conditions, respectively.” They also noted that close proximity to green space “[mitigated the effect of] air pollution on the neurological disorders.” Evidence is inconclusive on why green space can lessen the effects of air pollution, but the positive effect is clear, whether it be from increased exercise opportunities, cleaner air, or “just the visual aspects of vegetation,” as suggested by the researchers. With the amount of traffic in Perryman and the additional 5,951 parking spaces planned for the Mitchell property (2,178 of which are for tractor trailers), decreased air quality from increased traffic is inevitable, unless mitigation measures are implemented.

Infinitely Impervious 

The harm caused by distribution centers comes not only from traffic, but from the warehouses themselves. These complexes often sit upon what was once agricultural or natural land, replacing it with impervious surfaces and necessary infrastructure for capturing and treating polluted runoff and managing stormwater during heavy precipitation events. Despite facilities meeting local stormwater regulations, residents claim distribution centers have exacerbated existing flooding concerns from rising sea levels and the increasing prevalence of intense storms, both of which are caused by climate change.

Stacy Stone's front yard, winter 2022. Source: 3P's Facebook Page

Stacy Stone, a Perryman resident and stormwater engineer, had to put her multi-generational family home along the Bush River on stilts after Hurricane Isabel struck in 2003. Even so, recent pictures on 3P’s website show her front yard submerged in nearly a foot of water; she said the flooding has gotten worse since the distribution centers have moved in. As a stormwater expert, she’s reluctant to draw causal conclusions between distribution centers and flooding without deeper analysis, but notes, “They surely can’t help.” Warehouse development and stormwater runoff impacts not only residents, but also the surrounding environment. What’s lost when distribution centers are built is the cropland, forest, and wetlands – crucial habitat for local flora and fauna. 

Bush River Watershed

The Bush River to the north of Perryman — home to a Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and a critical player in sustaining local fisheries — was listed as impaired twice, from nutrient runoff in 1996 and from Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in 2014. In fact, the River has suffered immensely from the region's rapid development. Estimates from The Commons using the National Land Cover Database (NLCD) indicate that between 2001 and 2019, the Bush River watershed increased its impervious surface coverage by 13%. Developed land represented over a quarter of total land cover in 2019. Theaux Le Gardeur, executive director of the Gunpowder Riverkeeper which works to conserve and protect the Bush, Bird, and Gunpowder Rivers and their watersheds, said “the Bush is on the brink” because impervious surface coverage exceeding 25% will likely cause “ecosystem collapse.” The Bush River and its wetlands provide habitat to iconic bird species like Bald Eagles and Great Blue Herons, in addition to serving as spawning grounds for 26 migratory fish. In a 2008 report, researchers found the Bush River ranked highest in fish diversity when compared to other ecosystems sampled by the Department of Natural Resources. However, the report notes the watershed’s fragility and points to a “high degree of impervious surface within it” as the main culprit. The report goes on to say, “land-use planning must be evaluated carefully in the Bush River watershed to minimize potential impacts to water quality and the fisheries.” 

Land Cover Type change, Bush River watershed. Source: NLCD, analysis by the Commons

Despite research from the State indicating the need for comprehensive watershed-wide development plans and restrictions on impervious surfaces, Perryman and other areas within the watershed have seen significant declines in natural land acreage. Between 2001 and 2019, the Bush watershed lost 588 acres of deciduous forest and 28 acres of wetlands. Just a few miles south of Perryman in nearby Abingdon, a project aims to clear 330 acres of mostly deciduous forest crucial to the Bush watershed to make way for yet another mega warehouse. A two-year effort by local residents to stop the project has been largely unsuccessful, despite extensive public comment and lawsuits by residents and regional organizations. Chesapeake Legal Alliance filed suit on behalf of the Gunpowder Riverkeeper against Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) for approving a Nontidal Wetland and Waterway permit without adequate opportunity for public comment, citing insufficient social and ecological impact plans proposed by the developer.

Save Abingdon Woods campaign sign. Source: Matt Button - The Aegis

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also sued, contesting the cutting of large “specimen trees” found within Abingdon Woods. Despite suits winning an additional public comment period, the permits in question received approval. Tracey Waite, the head of Save Abingdon Woods, holds out hope, noting a requisite Army Corp of Engineers permit that's set to expire if certain aspects of construction are not completed by September 30, 2022. The Bush River is not the only natural resource threatened by impervious surfaces and mega warehouse development. Beneath the Perryman Peninsula lies an aquifer roughly 100 to 200 feet beneath the surface. This aquifer is tapped by nine municipal wells and provides drinking water to 90,000 residents of Harford County. The wells are protected by a buffer zone known as the Perryman Wellfield Protection District, an area of roughly 3,500 acres which stipulates development restrictions like banning hazardous waste storage, mining, landfills, and petroleum-based product manufacturing, all in an effort to “protect the quality and quantity of the groundwater and surface water that provide drinking water to the general public.”

Perryman Wellfield Protection District

Poison in the Wells

In addition to industrial use limitations, the Harford County zoning statute 267-77 Wellfield Protection District limits impervious surface creation to a maximum of 50% for any new development within the Perryman Wellfield Protection District. Despite this regulation, analysis using the NLCD shows that impervious surfaces within the district have increased 11% between 2001 and 2019, totaling an estimated 49.46% of land area. The protection district also covers a section of APG that has seen little to no impervious surface increase over the last 20 years. Looking only at Harford County land within the district (roughly a third), impervious surfaces have increased 23% over the 19-year analysis period to a shocking 62% of total land cover. This raises the question, how can impervious surfaces increase beyond 50% despite zoning laws capping impervious surfaces to 50%? The answer is multifold.

Land Cover Type change, Perryman Wellfield Protection District. Source: NLCD, analysis by The Commons

First, the zoning statute addresses land cover only at a property level and makes no mention of cumulative land cover within the district. Thus, if every property development maintains less than 50% imperviousness, the developments can keep coming, despite continually raising the overall imperviousness of the protection district. Additionally, public infrastructure like roads and utility easements, notoriously impervious land use types, are not included in private property calculations. However, the most significant contributing factor to the disparity between intended and actual impervious surface amounts is the method used by developers to calculate the impervious percentage for a proposed property. Similar to gerrymandering, planners deliberately cut and shape parcels into lots, staying below the 50% rule within each lot. In simple terms, they will draft lots that take pervious surfaces from outside the protection district to balance the impervious surface within the wellfield, disregarding existing hydrological and tax parcel boundaries. In the case of the Mitchell property, two lots intersecting the protection district have a planned total impervious surface coverage exceeding 49.5% — just barely below the 50% limit.

Excerpt from Mitchell Property Development plan, December 2021. Source: Chesapeake Development Group

The 711-acre Mitchell property will be 85% impervious once it’s developed, with 108.5 impervious acres falling within the wellfield protection district, only further increasing risk to drinking water. Planning documents for other facilities obtained from MDE using Maryland’s Public Information Act show a similar trend of developers subdividing parcels to meet the 50% rule in Perryman. Although Harford County law aims to protect the wellfield, its zoning regulations render the law virtually ineffective in restricting impervious surfaces due to focusing on individual parcels, not accounting for impervious public infrastructure, and allowing for parcel subdividing. The problems caused by virtually unregulated impervious surface in the wellfield are compounded by the nearby Michaelsville Landfill, a superfund site in APG containing trichloroethylene (TCE). 

Simple diagram of Perryman wellfield. Source: Maryland Geological Survey

TCE is a cancer-causing legacy pollutant once used by the military as a flame retardant and currently used as an industrial solvent and refrigerant. TCE is in the chemical family of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, commonly known as PFAS, and is responsible for a host of health effects, including kidney and liver cancer and neurological diseases. The federal government declared the Michaelsville Landfill a superfund site in 1989. Heavier than water, TCE filters through soil and can infiltrate groundwater sources, potentially harming well users. According to the EPA, TCE is “the most frequently reported organic contaminant in groundwater” and “between 9 and 34 percent” of drinking water supply sources have some TCE. In February 1992, TCE was detected at two of the nine Perryman wells. Carbon filters were installed in 1993 and 2003 to safeguard against contamination and bring concentrations below detectable levels. Current data shows that TCE concentrations average 1.8 ppt (parts per trillion) at the contaminated Perryman wells, below the EPA limit of 70 ppt for PFOS (a subset of PFAS and TCE’s regulatory category). Despite mitigation measures, the threat of contamination persists. TCE was recently detected in community wells in 2005 around Havre de Grace, a city just north of the Perryman. TCE vapors were detected at the Michaelsville landfill during the most recent follow up study in 2018. 

Perryman wellfield and TCE plume from Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Source: Maryland Geological Survey

Poorly handled runoff from distribution centers could further enhance risk. As noted above, the health risks of PM2.5, brake dust, and a myriad other air and water pollutants increase dramatically with intense truck traffic and impervious surfaces. If impervious surface runoff is not properly infiltrated or allowed to percolate naturally through the ground and replenish the aquifer beneath, “water will fill in from further away from the wells, potentially resulting in contaminated water from [APG] reaching the wells,” according to stormwater expert and resident Stacy Stone. Although distribution centers are required by County law to pretreat and handle runoff in a way that will “minimize ... impact of pollutants to the wellfield,'' stormwater plans for light industrial facilities in Harford County necessitate using only 10-year storm estimates based on the last 30 years. Hurricanes and other storms are increasing in frequency and intensity in the Mid-Atlantic. If planners do not have accurate data to put into their forecasting models, infrastructure aimed at protecting drinking water resources and the environment from contaminated runoff will likely be insufficient. Future mitigation efforts and treatment infrastructure will inevitably be funded by Harford County taxpayers and water users, increasing the social cost from distribution center development.

Unequal People 

Both residents and experts argue that warehouse development in Perryman is not only because of its location and availability of land. Compared to the greater Harford County area, Perryman and its adjacent neighborhoods have higher percentages of People of Color and people earning lower incomes. Perryman locals are not alone. Comparatively disadvantaged communities from Los Angeles to New York experience disproportionate industrial development compared to more affluent and White communities.

Disparate siting of Amazon Warehouses. Source: Consumer Reports

A recent investigation by Consumer Reports and the Guardian found that Amazon opened distribution centers “in neighborhoods with a disproportionately high number of People of Color and low-income residents.” Dr. Sacoby Wilson from the University of Maryland’s Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health (CEEJH) identifies this as environmental racism. He said that “communities that host delivery facilities end up being the losers.” As additional evidence for discrimination, advocates point to an unequal distribution of community services like well-maintained parks and roads found in other areas of Harford County. At the behest of residents ready to address discriminatory planning, Harford County Council representative Curtis Beulah proposed a 150-day building moratorium, Bill 22-003. The bill would allow time for a study group to investigate the effects of development in Perryman ranging from traffic to pollution. 

Harford County Percent Black by Census Tract, 2020

On March 15, 2022, the Harford County Council listened to public comments concerning the Bill. During the meeting, more than 200 community members testified in support of the Bill. One resident called the injustice of continued approval of mega warehouse development projects “contamination without representation.” The project developers, Chesapeake Real Estate Group, the Mitchell family, and pro-development members of the community pushed back, calling the Bill “an attack on business” and “a violation of constitutional property rights.” This isn’t the first time the County Council has entertained a development moratorium. In 2021, the Council approved a 120-day moratorium on development in response to a planned AleCraft farm brewery outside Bel Air, the Harford County capital. Residents complained of misusing land zoned for agriculture and the potential traffic increase stemming from the operation. The surrounding zip code of the proposed property, 21015, has a median household income of $118,483, a White population of 88.1%, and a 8.9% Black population, compared to Harford County's Black population of 15.9%. Perryman demographics look much different. The median household income is only $59,992, almost half of 21015’s income. Furthermore, Perryman is only 63.7% White and 40.7% of the residents are Black, more than quadruple 21015’s Black population share (note: numbers exceed 100% due to margin of error). The effort to stop AleCraft was successful. Harford County formed a study group and subsequently passed significant restrictions on the farm brewery industry, causing AleCraft to open a brewery in Pennsylvania, only four miles from Harford County border. Residents of Perryman were quick to point out the inequity, asking, “If a moratorium can pass in the north, why can’t it pass in the south?” alluding to the demographic and cultural divide between northern and southern Harford County. The answer, as Dr. Sacoby Wilson notes, is environmental racism.

3P protest prior to the March 15 County Council meeting. Source: The Commons

On April 19, 2022, Harford County Council voted in favor of the moratorium 7-0 to delay development and allow time for an independent study assessing the impacts from distribution centers. Anti-development residents were undoubtedly pleased with the vote, but predicted a veto by County Executive Barry Glassman, an official who some Perryman residents accuse of being heavily influenced by the development community. At a protest preceding the March 15 meeting, members of 3P held signs that read, “Missing, Barry Glassman: Last seen with developers.” Their claims are not unfounded: Maryland campaign finance records show that the Mitchell family, the property developers, and architects have donated over $10,000 to Glassman and County Council members since 2015, when the Mitchell family began liquidating their property. Research done by resident Ron Stuchinski indicates this number could be much higher. During the March 15 council meeting, a representative for Glassman and the County Executive's office testified that a moratorium is “irreparably flawed” and “not permissible under these circumstances,” and as such, they said they will not support the bill, despite a moratorium passing one year prior by the same legislative body. On May 2, Executive Glassman vetoed the Bill as predicted. At the next County Council meeting on May 3, the Council had an opportunity to deny the veto, but unexpectedly not a single representative proposed a vote. Effectively killing the Bill and upholding Glassman’s veto, despite voting 7-0 in support less than two months earlier. Blindsided, resident Kate McDonald stood up and said “I don’t have anything to say to these people.” Her and other moratorium supporter subsequently walked out of the meeting in protest.

Port of Baltimore's four new cranes. Source: Baltimore Sun

If You Build It 

Efforts to stall development on Perryman are set against the backdrop of expanding industrial transportation infrastructure and pro-development state policies. Maryland is making significant investments in increasing cargo capacity for roads, rail lines, and ports. Just last year, the Port of Baltimore added four new cranes and increased total tonnage by 36% from 2011 to 2021. The section of Interstate 95 just west of Perryman is undergoing a $1.1 billion dollar expansion to provide additional capacity in the form of two northbound toll lanes. Rail is also expanding: bisecting Perryman Peninsula is Amtrak’s Northeast Regional line, a railway used heavily by freight and commuter trains from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia and New York. To accommodate additional containers from the Port of Baltimore, plans to expand rail capacity to fit double stacked trains are underway with track lowering and bridge reconstruction at key pinch points. Doubling cargo rail capacity would shift the economic calculus in Perryman away from tractor trailers to trains. 

Train derailment on the North East Regional line off Perryman Road. Source 3P's Facebook page

While the shift to railways might help alleviate issues from truck traffic, trains pose their own risks. On March 5, 2022, 10 days before the moratorium meeting, 20 Norfolk Southern coal cars derailed on the Northeast Regional line in Perryman, temporarily shutting down Amtrak service between New York and Baltimore. A month later, a two-story pile of coal remained in an abandoned field with damaged rail cars adjacent and a twisted section of track laying on the road shoulder. Furthermore, it’s likely that moving from road to rail will only serve to increase demand for new warehouse development in Perryman and intensify truck traffic still needed for local delivery and transit to facilities without rail access. 

A Snapshot of Maryland.gov distribution and logistics webpage. Source: State of Maryland

In addition to growing cargo capacity, the State of Maryland and Governor Larry Hogan’s Republican administration actively supports warehouse development. A multitude of tax incentives are available for developers, often totalling millions of dollars in reduced tax bills from initiatives like One Maryland and the Enterprise Zone tax credit program. In 2013, Maryland gave Amazon $43 million in tax credits to move into an old General Motors facility in southeast Baltimore. In 2020, the Maryland Senate passed a sales and use tax exemption for “construction and warehouse equipment” in Washington County, another hotspot in Maryland for distribution centers at the intersection of Interstates 70 and 81. A government website touts Maryland as “prime location ... ideal for logistics and distribution” with “infrastructure and [a] highly advanced workforce that put businesses in the driver's seat for distribution.” In addition, the state provides resources for finding available distribution space and vacant plots for development. Calls to prioritize community concerns over industrial warehouse development were made during the March 15 public comment period. “Development gets a tax incentive, I get a tax increase, is that how economic development works? How much more economic development can I afford?” said one Perryman resident. 

Bald Eagle in Perryman. Source: Vincent Dimick from 3P's Facebook Page

The Long Road Ahead

Perryman and other communities dealing with the consequences of warehouse development sit at the intersection of logistical happenstance, environmental racism, and pro-warehouse development governance. Their proximity to rail and highway infrastructure and the few remaining tracts of open land make Perryman a target for developers. Long term, residents are working with state and county officials to gather funds to purchase the Mitchell property and turn it into a park and historical site but are concerned they’ll fall short of the Mitchell family's asking price. 3P highlights the long and often troubled history of colonization, slavery, and 20th century exploitive labor on the peninsula and is eager to learn more through archaeological discovery and preservation. The oldest Episcopal parish in Maryland, founded in 1671 with the current structure erected in 1851, sits on the north side of Perryman, just a stone's throw away from Clorox's second warehouse. Historic Victorian homes and the Mitchell canning facility may remain if more development occurs, but the landscape on which they sit, and Perryman’s identity, will change irreparably. When WBAL, a local Baltimore TV station, raised the resident’s concerns with the Mitchell family, they responded, “They don’t own it.” While technically correct, harm from the development and distribution centers in Perryman bleeds well beyond property boundaries, leading one to ask: shouldn’t developers own the damage they cause to others?

Proposed Historic Mitchell Farm State Park preliminary plans. Source: 3P

Despite the uphill battle, 3P and concerned residents have great resolve. The community continues to organize and fervently advocate for the land and its legacy. The story of distribution centers in Perryman and across the region is still being written. Grassroots organizing and advocacy has the power to effect change. A three hour drive south from Perryman on Interstate 95, a historically Black community outside Richmond has made strides in delaying a Wegmans distribution center set to be built on historic grave sites. However, these communities deserve more, especially from their elected leaders and democratic systems created “by the people, for the people.” A moratorium is just the first step in addressing the human and environmental impact from expanding industrial warehouse development. Comprehensive legislation at a state and county level is needed to regulate distribution centers to protect communities from their myriad of social costs. Without such plans, areas like Perryman may continue to see declines in quality of residents’ life, destruction of the environment, and erasure of its complex history. 

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Gabriel Watson
Data Analyst

Gabe leads the Common Knowledge program at The Commons and develops narrative and analysis supporting environmental and social causes. Hailing from Baltimore Maryland, Gabe spent his undergrad studying economics and urban environmental policy at Occidental College in northeast Los Angeles.

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20 min read
Sunrise over the Mitchell property on Perryman Peninsula. Source: Baltimore Sun

For the residents of Perryman Peninsula in Harford County, Maryland, the days are marked by the sun rising over the Chesapeake Bay to the East and settling behind the Bush River to the West. When British explorer John Smith sailed the Chesapeake in 1608 he eloquently described Perryman and other bayside peninsulas as, “Heaven and earth seemed never to have agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.” Much of that natural beauty still remains. Bald Eagles nest along the shores of the Bush River and swaths of fertile cropland stretch across the horizon. The area's history, environment, and rich natural resources make Perryman Peninsula an idyllic Maryland community, where 19th century Victorian-style homes dot two-lane country roads and residents have pride for the land, and its history. However, that land is quickly changing. Despite the area’s immense natural value, the peninsula is being redeveloped for distribution centers to serve the region's ever-growing demand for online shopping and rapid delivery services.

860,000 square foot Tower Logistics Center in Perryman. Source: Merritt Properties

Local Problems, Global Forces 

For e-commerce companies and large retailers like Amazon, moving goods from the factory floor to a customer’s front porch within days — or even hours — requires an intricate delivery system often utilizing ships, ports, trains, trucks, and distribution centers. Distribution centers are dedicated to storing, sorting, and shipping goods, often just before they reach the last mile and consumers. Close proximity to both ports and consumers necessitates siting distribution centers along transportation corridors, like near Interstate 95 between Baltimore and Philadelphia and Northwest to Hagerstown, Pennsylvania, on Interstate 81. Distribution centers located in this area can reach two-thirds of the US population within a 24-hour truck drive. These facilities, colloquially called mega warehouses, live up to their name, often with over one million square feet of warehouse space on hundreds of acres of land. The growth of the e-commerce industry, sparked by changes in consumer habits and the COVID-19 pandemic, has spurred rapid development of mega warehouses, often at the expense of surrounding communities.

Maryland Mega Warehouse Growth

States like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland are hotspots for distribution centers. According to tax parcel records, Maryland, in particular, has seen a 260% increase in mega warehouse space since 2000, rising from 19.7 to over 51 million square feet in 2021. Many distribution centers are built in existing industrial parks like Amazon’s complex in Sparrows Point, near the Port of Baltimore. However, dwindling industrial space suitable for large distribution centers have pushed developers towards farming and residential communities with expansive tracts of undeveloped or lightly developed land. For some communities, the social and environmental costs are substantial. They call into question the promises of economic gains and the supposed role of local and state governments to ensure sustainable development. Nowhere is this more evident than Perryman Peninsula. Over a dozen distribution centers have been built there in the last 20 years, dramatically degrading the landscape, threatening resident’s health, and damaging the environment in the process.

Perryman Peninsula 2014 - 2021. Source: ESRI Wayback

Perryman’s Landscape Legacy 

The Perryman Peninsula has seen many cycles of change since European colonization. Originally inhabited by Iroquois, the first European contact came with John Smith’s Chesapeake voyage in 1608. Settled by Episcopalians, Perryman would quickly become a productive agricultural peninsula relying heavily on slave labor. A census in 1771 counted a total of 1,440 people. Roughly 55% of the population was White and 45% Black, approaching equal Black and White populations, a ratio typically seen only in southern plantation states. After the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865 and slavery abolition, the agricultural industry shifted towards corn canning, utilizing exploitative company labor. Perryman would change again when in response to World War I, Congress purchased 69,000 acres of peninsula land for Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) from farmers, many of whom were Black descendants of the area’s intensive slaving past. Moving into the 20th and early 21st century, Perryman would become a quintessential Chesapeake town, a mixture of farm fields and waterfront residential development, with close knit community ties based on their rich, complex history. However, in the last 20 years, the landscape of Perryman itself, and its history, are being paved over for distribution centers to feed an ever growing demand for direct-to-consumer goods.

Perryman Peninsula and Maryland Mega Warehouses  

With wide open spaces, low population density, and close proximity to urban communities, Perryman Peninsula became an ideal location to site industrial warehouses. Clorox built the first modern industrial facility in the area in 1992. The Clorox company subsequently opened another facility in 1998, employing nearly 200 people; this marks a critical turnaround point, as Perryman began transitioning from farming and canning to industrial uses, like warehouses and distribution centers. Enabled by local zoning changes from agriculture to “light industrial” in the early 2000s, distribution center development exploded on the peninsula. At the turn of the century, large tracts of farmland were converted into warehouses for rapidly growing companies like Bob’s Discount Furniture, Wayfair, and Amazon. Historic land owners continue to sell off their property for development, despite intense opposition from neighboring residents. One such family, the Mitchells, are at the center of controversy.

For Sale by Owner

The Mitchell family was the driving force of Perryman’s historic canning industry. In the 1920s, F.O. Mitchell & Sons, Inc., produced 200 tons of canned corn per day. The company would operate until the mid 1980s. At its height, the Mitchell family owned approximately 1,000 acres of Perryman Peninsula land as of 2012, becoming the single largest private landowner, according to tax parcel records. In 2015, the Mitchells sold 208 acres of their property along the border of Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG). That property is now home to three distribution centers and another under development. The historic canning buildings still stand, vacant and in disrepair, beneath the shadow of a 672,00 square foot Bob’s Discount Furniture warehouse.

Excerpt from Mitchell Property plan, December 2021. Source: Chesapeake Development Group

The Mitchell family plans to sell an additional 711 acres of property in the center of Perryman to the Chesapeake Real Estate Group. If the deal goes through, the land will house the third largest distribution complex in the country, including one building that will become the eighth largest in the country. The development will offer 5.24 million square feet of warehouse space for lease, equivalent to over 90 American football fields. Perryman residents unhappy about the development have limited recourse. As an unincorporated community, Perryman Peninsula has no direct representation; it’s governed by the seven-member Harford County Council and the Harford County Executive. As a result, proposed legislation addressing distribution center development must be heard at the county level. Without a town council and the resulting power over issues like zoning and construction, Perryman residents lack the political agency to approve or reject zoning and construction projects in their community. To influence the decision-making process, residents must articulate their grievances in Bel Air, the county seat and a 25-minute drive from Perryman. Construction projects call for a series of county, state, and federal permits, requiring social and environmental impact statements, traffic studies, construction plans, and other documents. As long as these permits are approved, residents have little say in whether the project moves forward. Neighbors first learned of the plans in November 2021, when notices about the development were sent to residents; reportedly, 73 were distributed. At the first Community Input Meeting in December 2021, nearly 300 people showed up to voice their concerns. Following that meeting, Perryman residents organized to form the Protect Perryman Peninsula coalition (3P), citing nuisances from existing distribution centers, quickly dwindling undeveloped land, and potential threats to wells that provide drinking water to a third of Harford County's 250,000 residents.

Truck stuck on Riverside Parkway median near Perryman. Source: 3P's Facebook Page

Truck Trouble

The impacts of distribution centers on Perryman Peninsula are immediately evident, from trash to traffic. Perryman residents complain of insufficient infrastructure to support heavy tractor trailers, like proper turnarounds and sleeping facilities, leading to damaged roads and rampant litter. The two-lane Perryman Road, the only major access to and from the peninsula, sees over 2,000 trucks and nearly 3,000 cars per day, according to Maryland Department of Transportation traffic data collected on the route 715 roundabout to Perryman Road. Long lines of trucks queue up along the narrow dirt shoulder, waiting to drop off and pick up loads. On the 3P Coalition’s Facebook page, residents catalog dozens of photos showing tractor trailers cutting corners through neighborhood yards, often obliterating signage and residents’ mailboxes in the process. Residents — and there are only 2,397 of them — note waiting nearly 30 minutes to leave the peninsula during the 3 p.m. shift change, when warehouse workers leave and arrive on the peninsula en masse.

Walmart Fire in Plainfield Indiana. Source: Channel 13 WTHR

Traffic issues impact the ability for fire, police, and emergency medical services to reach the peninsula. The City of Aberdeen Fire Department Chief was quoted by resident Chip Reilly as saying, “Emergency response times in Perryman have risen to 13 minutes during normal traffic conditions,” posing significant risk in the event of a traffic accident or warehouse fire, like the Walmart fire in Plainfield, Indiana, in March 2022. The Fire Chief also said that between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., when the shift change coincides with rush hour, the roundabout on Philadelphia Road “routinely had trucks backed up, so response times will be longer.” The worsening traffic conditions are corroborated by locals. During a protest against the development, a resident was asked to describe the effect of distribution centers on the community; his response was, “One word: dangerous.” He then relayed that an elderly resident is afraid to leave her driveway, fearing an accident from the constant traffic. Residents and regulatory agencies are worried additional warehouses will exacerbate the issue. The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) and Harford County found glaring deficiencies in the traffic study submitted by the Mitchell project developers, including “significantly low” traffic volume estimates and “insufficient measures” to ensure truck traffic stayed off Perryman Road. State and County officials left 37 comments in the report, calling for an entirely new study and traffic counts. Citing these shortcomings, Paul Fallace, head of 3P, said, “It is inappropriate for the zoning and inappropriate for the residents with one way in and one way off the Peninsula.” Calls to increase the access and infrastructure in Perryman have been made for nearly 20 years to help alleviate congestion though little has improved.

Litter from Distribution Centers in a Perryman Creek. Source: 3P's Facebook Page

The Harford County Government is investing in some road improvement projects, but it has yet to demonstrate reduced impact caused by high truck volume. A proposed connection from Maryland Route 715 to the dead-end Woodley Road on the northern end of the peninsula has been stalled ever since APG forbade public access to the adjacent electrical substation it uses to power the grounds, citing national security concerns. Although Harford County has planned improvements to Spesutia Road, a car-only access point from the north of Perryman, the capacity for truck traffic onto and out of the peninsula has not increased. Despite promises from state and local politicians and pleas from residents and emergency responders to build the short connection from Woodley Road to Route 715 before permitting new development, distribution centers continue to be built.

Dead-end of Woodley Road and APG substation. Source: The Commons

Something in the Air

Beyond the visible issues of tractor trailer traffic, the 18 wheelers contribute additional harm to community members, notably air, noise, and light pollution. Locals have always been accustomed to their homes shaking from the rumble of daily ordinance testing at APG, but they weren’t ready for the noise pollution caused by the trucks. For instance, the sound of trailer doors banging open and closed through the night creates chronic sound disturbances. A lifelong Perryman resident was never bothered by routine bomb testing, but “couldn’t handle” the sound of banging doors. Noise pollution over 70 decibels can induce hearing loss and is correlated with poor sleep quality, depression, and increased blood pressure. Data from the US Department of Transportation shows Perryman Road averages 50 to 60 decibels over a 24-hour period. Additionally, many locals cite persistent light pollution as a major nuisance. Distribution centers often operate 24/7 with stadium style lighting. Residents living adjacent to facilities report not being able to sleep, with industrial lighting pouring into their homes and no requirements to dim or reduce illumination. Just like noise pollution, light pollution also affects resident’s sleep quality, and it can lead to chronic fatigue, headaches, anxiety, and stress. Although nuisance from litter, sound, and light from distribution centers has a detrimental effect on residents, the air pollution from constant truck traffic in close proximity to residential areas poses the most significant risk to human health.

Emissions from tractor trailers. Source: EPA

Scientific literature has robustly correlated emissions from diesel trucks with a host of health impacts. Combusted diesel fuel releases PM2.5 — particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns that embeds itself into lung tissue, and leads to asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses. New research shows PM2.5 has the potential to exacerbate and even cause lung cancer. Nitrogen oxides from diesel combustion present additional risks, causing headaches, asthma, wheezing, coughing, and increased hospital visits, particularly for younger and older populations, according to the American Lung Association. Nitrous oxides can also form ozone, a cancer-causing compound. Maryland has made strides in reducing ozone, largely produced by coal burning power plants across the state; however, averages are still above EPA standards and a hotspot directly over Perryman Peninsula persists, likely due to emissions from transit pollution and ambient air patterns. As a consequence, Perryman ranks in the 90th percentile for cancer-causing air pollution when compared to the rest of Maryland, according to EPA’s EJScreen data.

Maryland Ozone 2021 estimates. Source: Maryland Department of the Environment

Although increasingly stringent diesel emission standards from the federal government have reduced air pollution, particularly nitrous oxides and greenhouse gases, research from Europe shows that combustion accounts for only an estimated 55% of traffic-related air pollution. Particulates from brake dust are particularly harmful, not only affecting respiratory systems in a similar way to nitrous oxide and PM2.5, but also increasing the prevalence of neurological diseases and weakening the immune system. These fine metallic particles, known as magnetite nanoparticles, are small enough to pass through the blood, hampering white blood cell activity and embedding themselves in the brain, leading to depression, dementia, and even Parkinson's disease. A study from British Columbia found that “for non-Alzheimer's dementia and Parkinson's disease specifically, living near major roads or a highway was associated with 14% and 7% increased risk of both conditions, respectively.” They also noted that close proximity to green space “[mitigated the effect of] air pollution on the neurological disorders.” Evidence is inconclusive on why green space can lessen the effects of air pollution, but the positive effect is clear, whether it be from increased exercise opportunities, cleaner air, or “just the visual aspects of vegetation,” as suggested by the researchers. With the amount of traffic in Perryman and the additional 5,951 parking spaces planned for the Mitchell property (2,178 of which are for tractor trailers), decreased air quality from increased traffic is inevitable, unless mitigation measures are implemented.

Infinitely Impervious 

The harm caused by distribution centers comes not only from traffic, but from the warehouses themselves. These complexes often sit upon what was once agricultural or natural land, replacing it with impervious surfaces and necessary infrastructure for capturing and treating polluted runoff and managing stormwater during heavy precipitation events. Despite facilities meeting local stormwater regulations, residents claim distribution centers have exacerbated existing flooding concerns from rising sea levels and the increasing prevalence of intense storms, both of which are caused by climate change.

Stacy Stone's front yard, winter 2022. Source: 3P's Facebook Page

Stacy Stone, a Perryman resident and stormwater engineer, had to put her multi-generational family home along the Bush River on stilts after Hurricane Isabel struck in 2003. Even so, recent pictures on 3P’s website show her front yard submerged in nearly a foot of water; she said the flooding has gotten worse since the distribution centers have moved in. As a stormwater expert, she’s reluctant to draw causal conclusions between distribution centers and flooding without deeper analysis, but notes, “They surely can’t help.” Warehouse development and stormwater runoff impacts not only residents, but also the surrounding environment. What’s lost when distribution centers are built is the cropland, forest, and wetlands – crucial habitat for local flora and fauna. 

Bush River Watershed

The Bush River to the north of Perryman — home to a Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and a critical player in sustaining local fisheries — was listed as impaired twice, from nutrient runoff in 1996 and from Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in 2014. In fact, the River has suffered immensely from the region's rapid development. Estimates from The Commons using the National Land Cover Database (NLCD) indicate that between 2001 and 2019, the Bush River watershed increased its impervious surface coverage by 13%. Developed land represented over a quarter of total land cover in 2019. Theaux Le Gardeur, executive director of the Gunpowder Riverkeeper which works to conserve and protect the Bush, Bird, and Gunpowder Rivers and their watersheds, said “the Bush is on the brink” because impervious surface coverage exceeding 25% will likely cause “ecosystem collapse.” The Bush River and its wetlands provide habitat to iconic bird species like Bald Eagles and Great Blue Herons, in addition to serving as spawning grounds for 26 migratory fish. In a 2008 report, researchers found the Bush River ranked highest in fish diversity when compared to other ecosystems sampled by the Department of Natural Resources. However, the report notes the watershed’s fragility and points to a “high degree of impervious surface within it” as the main culprit. The report goes on to say, “land-use planning must be evaluated carefully in the Bush River watershed to minimize potential impacts to water quality and the fisheries.” 

Land Cover Type change, Bush River watershed. Source: NLCD, analysis by the Commons

Despite research from the State indicating the need for comprehensive watershed-wide development plans and restrictions on impervious surfaces, Perryman and other areas within the watershed have seen significant declines in natural land acreage. Between 2001 and 2019, the Bush watershed lost 588 acres of deciduous forest and 28 acres of wetlands. Just a few miles south of Perryman in nearby Abingdon, a project aims to clear 330 acres of mostly deciduous forest crucial to the Bush watershed to make way for yet another mega warehouse. A two-year effort by local residents to stop the project has been largely unsuccessful, despite extensive public comment and lawsuits by residents and regional organizations. Chesapeake Legal Alliance filed suit on behalf of the Gunpowder Riverkeeper against Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) for approving a Nontidal Wetland and Waterway permit without adequate opportunity for public comment, citing insufficient social and ecological impact plans proposed by the developer.

Save Abingdon Woods campaign sign. Source: Matt Button - The Aegis

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also sued, contesting the cutting of large “specimen trees” found within Abingdon Woods. Despite suits winning an additional public comment period, the permits in question received approval. Tracey Waite, the head of Save Abingdon Woods, holds out hope, noting a requisite Army Corp of Engineers permit that's set to expire if certain aspects of construction are not completed by September 30, 2022. The Bush River is not the only natural resource threatened by impervious surfaces and mega warehouse development. Beneath the Perryman Peninsula lies an aquifer roughly 100 to 200 feet beneath the surface. This aquifer is tapped by nine municipal wells and provides drinking water to 90,000 residents of Harford County. The wells are protected by a buffer zone known as the Perryman Wellfield Protection District, an area of roughly 3,500 acres which stipulates development restrictions like banning hazardous waste storage, mining, landfills, and petroleum-based product manufacturing, all in an effort to “protect the quality and quantity of the groundwater and surface water that provide drinking water to the general public.”

Perryman Wellfield Protection District

Poison in the Wells

In addition to industrial use limitations, the Harford County zoning statute 267-77 Wellfield Protection District limits impervious surface creation to a maximum of 50% for any new development within the Perryman Wellfield Protection District. Despite this regulation, analysis using the NLCD shows that impervious surfaces within the district have increased 11% between 2001 and 2019, totaling an estimated 49.46% of land area. The protection district also covers a section of APG that has seen little to no impervious surface increase over the last 20 years. Looking only at Harford County land within the district (roughly a third), impervious surfaces have increased 23% over the 19-year analysis period to a shocking 62% of total land cover. This raises the question, how can impervious surfaces increase beyond 50% despite zoning laws capping impervious surfaces to 50%? The answer is multifold.

Land Cover Type change, Perryman Wellfield Protection District. Source: NLCD, analysis by The Commons

First, the zoning statute addresses land cover only at a property level and makes no mention of cumulative land cover within the district. Thus, if every property development maintains less than 50% imperviousness, the developments can keep coming, despite continually raising the overall imperviousness of the protection district. Additionally, public infrastructure like roads and utility easements, notoriously impervious land use types, are not included in private property calculations. However, the most significant contributing factor to the disparity between intended and actual impervious surface amounts is the method used by developers to calculate the impervious percentage for a proposed property. Similar to gerrymandering, planners deliberately cut and shape parcels into lots, staying below the 50% rule within each lot. In simple terms, they will draft lots that take pervious surfaces from outside the protection district to balance the impervious surface within the wellfield, disregarding existing hydrological and tax parcel boundaries. In the case of the Mitchell property, two lots intersecting the protection district have a planned total impervious surface coverage exceeding 49.5% — just barely below the 50% limit.

Excerpt from Mitchell Property Development plan, December 2021. Source: Chesapeake Development Group

The 711-acre Mitchell property will be 85% impervious once it’s developed, with 108.5 impervious acres falling within the wellfield protection district, only further increasing risk to drinking water. Planning documents for other facilities obtained from MDE using Maryland’s Public Information Act show a similar trend of developers subdividing parcels to meet the 50% rule in Perryman. Although Harford County law aims to protect the wellfield, its zoning regulations render the law virtually ineffective in restricting impervious surfaces due to focusing on individual parcels, not accounting for impervious public infrastructure, and allowing for parcel subdividing. The problems caused by virtually unregulated impervious surface in the wellfield are compounded by the nearby Michaelsville Landfill, a superfund site in APG containing trichloroethylene (TCE). 

Simple diagram of Perryman wellfield. Source: Maryland Geological Survey

TCE is a cancer-causing legacy pollutant once used by the military as a flame retardant and currently used as an industrial solvent and refrigerant. TCE is in the chemical family of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, commonly known as PFAS, and is responsible for a host of health effects, including kidney and liver cancer and neurological diseases. The federal government declared the Michaelsville Landfill a superfund site in 1989. Heavier than water, TCE filters through soil and can infiltrate groundwater sources, potentially harming well users. According to the EPA, TCE is “the most frequently reported organic contaminant in groundwater” and “between 9 and 34 percent” of drinking water supply sources have some TCE. In February 1992, TCE was detected at two of the nine Perryman wells. Carbon filters were installed in 1993 and 2003 to safeguard against contamination and bring concentrations below detectable levels. Current data shows that TCE concentrations average 1.8 ppt (parts per trillion) at the contaminated Perryman wells, below the EPA limit of 70 ppt for PFOS (a subset of PFAS and TCE’s regulatory category). Despite mitigation measures, the threat of contamination persists. TCE was recently detected in community wells in 2005 around Havre de Grace, a city just north of the Perryman. TCE vapors were detected at the Michaelsville landfill during the most recent follow up study in 2018. 

Perryman wellfield and TCE plume from Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Source: Maryland Geological Survey

Poorly handled runoff from distribution centers could further enhance risk. As noted above, the health risks of PM2.5, brake dust, and a myriad other air and water pollutants increase dramatically with intense truck traffic and impervious surfaces. If impervious surface runoff is not properly infiltrated or allowed to percolate naturally through the ground and replenish the aquifer beneath, “water will fill in from further away from the wells, potentially resulting in contaminated water from [APG] reaching the wells,” according to stormwater expert and resident Stacy Stone. Although distribution centers are required by County law to pretreat and handle runoff in a way that will “minimize ... impact of pollutants to the wellfield,'' stormwater plans for light industrial facilities in Harford County necessitate using only 10-year storm estimates based on the last 30 years. Hurricanes and other storms are increasing in frequency and intensity in the Mid-Atlantic. If planners do not have accurate data to put into their forecasting models, infrastructure aimed at protecting drinking water resources and the environment from contaminated runoff will likely be insufficient. Future mitigation efforts and treatment infrastructure will inevitably be funded by Harford County taxpayers and water users, increasing the social cost from distribution center development.

Unequal People 

Both residents and experts argue that warehouse development in Perryman is not only because of its location and availability of land. Compared to the greater Harford County area, Perryman and its adjacent neighborhoods have higher percentages of People of Color and people earning lower incomes. Perryman locals are not alone. Comparatively disadvantaged communities from Los Angeles to New York experience disproportionate industrial development compared to more affluent and White communities.

Disparate siting of Amazon Warehouses. Source: Consumer Reports

A recent investigation by Consumer Reports and the Guardian found that Amazon opened distribution centers “in neighborhoods with a disproportionately high number of People of Color and low-income residents.” Dr. Sacoby Wilson from the University of Maryland’s Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health (CEEJH) identifies this as environmental racism. He said that “communities that host delivery facilities end up being the losers.” As additional evidence for discrimination, advocates point to an unequal distribution of community services like well-maintained parks and roads found in other areas of Harford County. At the behest of residents ready to address discriminatory planning, Harford County Council representative Curtis Beulah proposed a 150-day building moratorium, Bill 22-003. The bill would allow time for a study group to investigate the effects of development in Perryman ranging from traffic to pollution. 

Harford County Percent Black by Census Tract, 2020

On March 15, 2022, the Harford County Council listened to public comments concerning the Bill. During the meeting, more than 200 community members testified in support of the Bill. One resident called the injustice of continued approval of mega warehouse development projects “contamination without representation.” The project developers, Chesapeake Real Estate Group, the Mitchell family, and pro-development members of the community pushed back, calling the Bill “an attack on business” and “a violation of constitutional property rights.” This isn’t the first time the County Council has entertained a development moratorium. In 2021, the Council approved a 120-day moratorium on development in response to a planned AleCraft farm brewery outside Bel Air, the Harford County capital. Residents complained of misusing land zoned for agriculture and the potential traffic increase stemming from the operation. The surrounding zip code of the proposed property, 21015, has a median household income of $118,483, a White population of 88.1%, and a 8.9% Black population, compared to Harford County's Black population of 15.9%. Perryman demographics look much different. The median household income is only $59,992, almost half of 21015’s income. Furthermore, Perryman is only 63.7% White and 40.7% of the residents are Black, more than quadruple 21015’s Black population share (note: numbers exceed 100% due to margin of error). The effort to stop AleCraft was successful. Harford County formed a study group and subsequently passed significant restrictions on the farm brewery industry, causing AleCraft to open a brewery in Pennsylvania, only four miles from Harford County border. Residents of Perryman were quick to point out the inequity, asking, “If a moratorium can pass in the north, why can’t it pass in the south?” alluding to the demographic and cultural divide between northern and southern Harford County. The answer, as Dr. Sacoby Wilson notes, is environmental racism.

3P protest prior to the March 15 County Council meeting. Source: The Commons

On April 19, 2022, Harford County Council voted in favor of the moratorium 7-0 to delay development and allow time for an independent study assessing the impacts from distribution centers. Anti-development residents were undoubtedly pleased with the vote, but predicted a veto by County Executive Barry Glassman, an official who some Perryman residents accuse of being heavily influenced by the development community. At a protest preceding the March 15 meeting, members of 3P held signs that read, “Missing, Barry Glassman: Last seen with developers.” Their claims are not unfounded: Maryland campaign finance records show that the Mitchell family, the property developers, and architects have donated over $10,000 to Glassman and County Council members since 2015, when the Mitchell family began liquidating their property. Research done by resident Ron Stuchinski indicates this number could be much higher. During the March 15 council meeting, a representative for Glassman and the County Executive's office testified that a moratorium is “irreparably flawed” and “not permissible under these circumstances,” and as such, they said they will not support the bill, despite a moratorium passing one year prior by the same legislative body. On May 2, Executive Glassman vetoed the Bill as predicted. At the next County Council meeting on May 3, the Council had an opportunity to deny the veto, but unexpectedly not a single representative proposed a vote. Effectively killing the Bill and upholding Glassman’s veto, despite voting 7-0 in support less than two months earlier. Blindsided, resident Kate McDonald stood up and said “I don’t have anything to say to these people.” Her and other moratorium supporter subsequently walked out of the meeting in protest.

Port of Baltimore's four new cranes. Source: Baltimore Sun

If You Build It 

Efforts to stall development on Perryman are set against the backdrop of expanding industrial transportation infrastructure and pro-development state policies. Maryland is making significant investments in increasing cargo capacity for roads, rail lines, and ports. Just last year, the Port of Baltimore added four new cranes and increased total tonnage by 36% from 2011 to 2021. The section of Interstate 95 just west of Perryman is undergoing a $1.1 billion dollar expansion to provide additional capacity in the form of two northbound toll lanes. Rail is also expanding: bisecting Perryman Peninsula is Amtrak’s Northeast Regional line, a railway used heavily by freight and commuter trains from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia and New York. To accommodate additional containers from the Port of Baltimore, plans to expand rail capacity to fit double stacked trains are underway with track lowering and bridge reconstruction at key pinch points. Doubling cargo rail capacity would shift the economic calculus in Perryman away from tractor trailers to trains. 

Train derailment on the North East Regional line off Perryman Road. Source 3P's Facebook page

While the shift to railways might help alleviate issues from truck traffic, trains pose their own risks. On March 5, 2022, 10 days before the moratorium meeting, 20 Norfolk Southern coal cars derailed on the Northeast Regional line in Perryman, temporarily shutting down Amtrak service between New York and Baltimore. A month later, a two-story pile of coal remained in an abandoned field with damaged rail cars adjacent and a twisted section of track laying on the road shoulder. Furthermore, it’s likely that moving from road to rail will only serve to increase demand for new warehouse development in Perryman and intensify truck traffic still needed for local delivery and transit to facilities without rail access. 

A Snapshot of Maryland.gov distribution and logistics webpage. Source: State of Maryland

In addition to growing cargo capacity, the State of Maryland and Governor Larry Hogan’s Republican administration actively supports warehouse development. A multitude of tax incentives are available for developers, often totalling millions of dollars in reduced tax bills from initiatives like One Maryland and the Enterprise Zone tax credit program. In 2013, Maryland gave Amazon $43 million in tax credits to move into an old General Motors facility in southeast Baltimore. In 2020, the Maryland Senate passed a sales and use tax exemption for “construction and warehouse equipment” in Washington County, another hotspot in Maryland for distribution centers at the intersection of Interstates 70 and 81. A government website touts Maryland as “prime location ... ideal for logistics and distribution” with “infrastructure and [a] highly advanced workforce that put businesses in the driver's seat for distribution.” In addition, the state provides resources for finding available distribution space and vacant plots for development. Calls to prioritize community concerns over industrial warehouse development were made during the March 15 public comment period. “Development gets a tax incentive, I get a tax increase, is that how economic development works? How much more economic development can I afford?” said one Perryman resident. 

Bald Eagle in Perryman. Source: Vincent Dimick from 3P's Facebook Page

The Long Road Ahead

Perryman and other communities dealing with the consequences of warehouse development sit at the intersection of logistical happenstance, environmental racism, and pro-warehouse development governance. Their proximity to rail and highway infrastructure and the few remaining tracts of open land make Perryman a target for developers. Long term, residents are working with state and county officials to gather funds to purchase the Mitchell property and turn it into a park and historical site but are concerned they’ll fall short of the Mitchell family's asking price. 3P highlights the long and often troubled history of colonization, slavery, and 20th century exploitive labor on the peninsula and is eager to learn more through archaeological discovery and preservation. The oldest Episcopal parish in Maryland, founded in 1671 with the current structure erected in 1851, sits on the north side of Perryman, just a stone's throw away from Clorox's second warehouse. Historic Victorian homes and the Mitchell canning facility may remain if more development occurs, but the landscape on which they sit, and Perryman’s identity, will change irreparably. When WBAL, a local Baltimore TV station, raised the resident’s concerns with the Mitchell family, they responded, “They don’t own it.” While technically correct, harm from the development and distribution centers in Perryman bleeds well beyond property boundaries, leading one to ask: shouldn’t developers own the damage they cause to others?

Proposed Historic Mitchell Farm State Park preliminary plans. Source: 3P

Despite the uphill battle, 3P and concerned residents have great resolve. The community continues to organize and fervently advocate for the land and its legacy. The story of distribution centers in Perryman and across the region is still being written. Grassroots organizing and advocacy has the power to effect change. A three hour drive south from Perryman on Interstate 95, a historically Black community outside Richmond has made strides in delaying a Wegmans distribution center set to be built on historic grave sites. However, these communities deserve more, especially from their elected leaders and democratic systems created “by the people, for the people.” A moratorium is just the first step in addressing the human and environmental impact from expanding industrial warehouse development. Comprehensive legislation at a state and county level is needed to regulate distribution centers to protect communities from their myriad of social costs. Without such plans, areas like Perryman may continue to see declines in quality of residents’ life, destruction of the environment, and erasure of its complex history. 

Gabriel Watson
Data Analyst

Gabe leads the Common Knowledge program at The Commons and develops narrative and analysis supporting environmental and social causes. Specializing in R, Gabe tackles a variety of projects with data analysis to help our stakeholders enforce state water quality permits, advocate for environmental issues, and visualize water quality monitoring results. Hailing from Baltimore Maryland, Gabe spent his undergrad studying economics and urban environmental policy at Occidental College in northeast Los Angeles. After graduation he worked at USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity performing data analysis and management to support social justice efforts in California. He has a particular interest in spatial data analysis and visualizations. In addition to leading Common Knowledge, Gabe builds R Shiny applications for the Water Reporter platform and provides user support for the Water Reporter API. Outside of work Gabe is an avid cyclist, fly fisherman, backpacker, sailer, and lover of the outdoors.