Preserving Chesapeake Heritage: Navigating the Tubman Landscape amid Rising Tides

By Jessica Brannock, Communications Intern

In 2007, roughly 17 acres of wetlands within Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) were dedicated to create the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad (HTUR) State Park. These lands and waterways where Tubman lived and worked as a young woman, enslaved by the Brodess family, make up just a fraction of the 25,000 acres of land in Dorchester County dedicated to the HTUR National Monument. While the park’s Visitor Center offers exhibits on the life and heroism of Tubman, the true monument to her legacy is the landscape itself—and it’s disappearing.

Over the course of a decade, Tubman returned to this landscape 13 times and guided 70 slaves to freedom. Hiding in the marshes by day and traveling by foot and boat at night, Tubman and other freedom seekers relied on their knowledge of Chesapeake waterways, plant, and animal life to survive the journey north.

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Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, LEED silver certified, and constructed on higher ground to protect the building against rising sea levels.

Today, much of the wildlife found in the brackish tidal marshes and hardwood forests of Blackwater NWR are typical of what Tubman encountered over 150 years ago. However, preserving these habitats and heritage is an ever-present challenge as wetlands throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed are threatened by environmental change.

Current water levels in Blackwater NWR are much higher than when Tubman navigated the rivers and marshes to freedom. Since the NWR’s establishment in 1933, over 5,000 acres of wetlands have been lost to sea level rise.

Marshes act as buffers between land and water, filtering out toxins and absorbing the forces of storms and tides, and Tubman would have been familiar with the tidal rhythms that flooded the wetlands with saltwater and ebbed back with the flow of freshwater tributaries. As sea levels rise, however, saltwater mingles more heavily with fresh, destroying salt-sensitive plant-life as marshlands erode and give way to flooding. By the end of the century, climate science predicts that sea levels will rise in the Bay region between 3 and 4 feet.

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Patches of bare forest and exposed tree roots, destroyed by saltwater intrusion are reminders of rising tides, and the imminent loss of habitat that follows.

The HTUR Visitor Center was constructed with the vulnerability of the landscape in mind. The building is sustainably designed to LEED silver standards and includes bioretention ponds, rain barrels, and vegetative roofs. Located near the Little Blackwater River, where Tubman worked checking muskrat traps as a child, the site was strategically elevated, placing the building on higher ground—a precautionary measure against the accelerating rate of sea level rise. With nearly 300 acres of marsh within the NWR lost each year, the wetlands could be fully submerged by 2050.

Actions can be taken to slow the loss and preserve the landscape so valuable for its habitat and history. In 2017, the Conservation Fund, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Audubon Society partnered to raise 40 acres of marshland within the NWR. This thin-layering process spread 26,000 cubic yards of sediment dredged from the Blackwater River across the wetlands, raising the marshes by 4-6 inches. Along with large scale tree and marsh grass planting, these efforts will help reduce the pace of flooding over the next decade.

As tides rise, the landscapes that hold our heritage will continue to suffer losses to their environmental and historical resources. In the coming years, we must acknowledge environmental threats and face them head on, so that future generations may continue to experience and interpret the legacy of our national treasures.

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Watching Irma

By Nell Ziehl, Chief, Office of Planning, Education and Outreach

As Hurricane Irma bears down, threatening southern Florida, I keep returning to what is precious about that place for me. My family and many of my childhood friends live in Tampa and St. Petersburg, well within the vulnerable area recently highlighted by the Washington Post. I was born there, not too far from where my mother and my grandmother were born. The connection is live, and I’m worried about my people.

But what else persists? From my great-grandparents’ time, some buildings still stand. My grandmother’s house still stands, I think. Emotionally, I can’t separate the historic bungalow cottages from the live oaks or from the pelicans standing on the bay’s stone wall. The pink bricks that pave my sister’s street warm and glow in the sun — the fabric and the light are equally important. Every year, our family gathers at the beach in one of the few small-scale, family-run motels left, a few doors down from the Don CeSar, a towering remnant of Florida’s early resort industry. Although the Gulf itself draws us, still full of life and beauty, these places also matter – the human record of their construction, their imprint of time and place, the memories and attachments formed there.

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The author’s family in St. Petersburg

At the same time, our cultural heritage includes a heritage of loss. We understand that hurricanes come and go and that buildings, piers and even roads are ephemeral. Left alone, the landscape will reconquer. And behaviors also persist. After generations of weathering storms, many locals do not evacuate, despite news that the storms are not the same. Even armed with better knowledge about water management and the importance of ecosystem restoration to protect inland areas (not to mention the biological habitat and tourism dollars), Florida continues to permit development in ways and in places that are unsustainable, potentially exacerbating disasters and jeopardizing recovery.

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The Don CeSar after a thunderstorm

As we move forward into an uncertain future, with climate change fueling rising tides and more dangerous storms, we must adapt in ways that take all of these elements into account. What is the spirit of the place? What should we protect? What *can* we protect? And what do we need to change?

Too often, our regulatory and philosophical frameworks force divisions between the “built environment” and the surrounding ecosystems, even though the full character of a place includes the architecture, infrastructure, streetscape, waterways, plants, animals – and the people who live there. Cultural heritage is cultural memory, and that includes traditional and historic ways of adapting to the natural environment, including storms. And when buildings collapse, when the tangible fails, the intangible remains valuable and can inform a more resilient future.

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A saw palmetto preserve

Preservationists sometimes focus on limiting rather than accommodating change. But we, more than many other professions, have the ability to understand the evolution of a community over time and to help manage change in ways that protect quality of life and respect the character of place. I pray that Irma passes by without much damage. But more storms will come, and how we respond and rebuild will determine what we can carry forward.

Preparing for Future Floods

By Nell Ziehl, Chief, Office of Planning, Education and Outreach

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Hoopers Island

As we turn from Ellicott City’s disaster response to recovery, and watch hurricanes threaten Florida and Hawaii, it’s hard not to think about all the places throughout Maryland that are prone to flooding. We built our earliest towns, cities, roads and rail lines along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. As ports and fishing industries boomed, we developed more. And let’s be honest: we all love to live and play near water. Continue reading

Solar Panels and Tax Credits

By Melissa Archer, Preservation Officer

Summer is upon us, and with longer days and higher energy bills, many Marylanders are looking for ways to save money and conserve energy. With advancements in technology, government incentives and flexible leasing options, installation of photovoltaic systems are becoming more appealing and accessible. This summer the MHT blog will feature a series of posts exploring how historic preservation and green technology can work together. This first post will discuss how state historic tax credits can be used for solar energy projects.

The Sustainable Communities Tax Credit exists to promote the rehabilitation and reuse of commercial and residential historic structures across the state. What a lot of people don’t realize is that installation of mechanical systems, like HVAC, water heaters, etc. are eligible rehabilitation expenses that qualify for the 20% income tax credit. This includes systems that incorporate green technology, like geothermal and solar panels.

A parapet wall on a building's roof can conceal solar panels from the public right-of-way.

A parapet wall on a building’s roof can conceal solar panels from the public right-of-way.

This applies to both commercial and owner-occupied properties that are “certified” historic by MHT. To find out if your property qualifies, please check the program pages for details. In order for the expenditures to qualify for the credit, the system must be purchased rather than leased.

The work must also be consistent with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. This means that the system must be compatible with the historic building, it must be reversible, and it must not destroy or conceal character-defining historic features.

How do you know if your solar project would qualify for historic tax credits? To determine if your project is eligible, you must submit an application to be reviewed by MHT prior to starting work. In the meantime, though, here are a few examples of situations in which historic tax credits may be an option:

Flat roofs can be used for solar infrastructure.

Flat roofs can be used for solar infrastructure.

1) Flat roofed structures

Properties with large, flat or gently-sloped roofs are ideal candidates for solar panels. In this situation, panels should be set back from the ends of the building so they are not visible from the public right of way. Roofs with parapet walls can also provide an excellent opportunity to conceal panels. In order to ensure that units are not visible, it is always a good idea to do a mock-up on the roof prior to installation.

2) Structures with non-historic additions

Additions might be an appropriate location for solar panels.

Additions might be an appropriate location for solar panels.

If your building’s roof is a gable, gambrel, pyramid or other prominent roof type, it will be difficult to install solar panels in a way that will not diminish the historic integrity of the structure.  A non-historic addition, however, may be able to accommodate panels in a way that minimally impacts the historic structure.  Solar panels on additions are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and factors to consider include the age of the addition, the roofing material, visual prominence, and surrounding landscape.

3) Properties with a lot of land

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A rural solar array.

In some cases a property owner may be able to avoid negatively impacting the historic structure by installing solar ground-mounted panels instead. This works best for properties with a lot of acreage where panels can be set back a considerable distance from the historic structure and roads.  Special considerations should be given to properties located on significant cultural landscapes like battlefields as well as areas with potential archeological resources.

Unfortunately, many historic buildings do not have the roof type, orientation, visibility conditions, etc., that will permit unobtrusive solar panel installation. In those situations, solar co-ops may be an appropriate solution. This arrangement would not qualify for historic tax credits, but in many cases it may be the best solution.

For more information about the tax credit, please visit our webpage at http://mht.maryland.gov/taxCredits.shtml.

Proposed changes to LEED – Preservationists make your voice heard by January 14!

Miller's Court, in Baltimore, recieved a LEED Gold rating  and won one of five 2010 Smart Growth Awards from the  Environmental Protection Agency

Miller’s Court, in Baltimore, recieved a LEED Gold rating and won one of five 2010 Smart Growth Awards from the Environmental Protection Agency

The United States Green Building Council is accepting public comments on the latest version of the LEED rating system and preservationists have an opportunity to weigh in on these proposed changes. You can read more about the revisions under consideration, their potential impact on historic buildings and find out how to submit your comments by visiting the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s website. Continue reading