The Builder and the River: Is Werrlein polluting or building better stormwater systems
By Kelly Livingston
Some Hyattsville residents remain at odds with Werrlein Properties, claiming their construction work at the Suffrage Point site next to Driskell Park has not been properly regulated by the county and contributes to local sediment pollution.
The group Sustainable Hyattsville, which is involved in several lawsuits aiming to stop the development based on disputes over density and zoning, has compiled pictures of sediment flowing from the stormwater outfall at the bottom of the project towards the Anacostia River.
Sustainable Hyattsville member Greg Smith explained some of the group’s objections to the project to the Hyattsville Life & Times, saying Werrlein hasn’t respected the “total maximum daily loads,” or TMDL, allowed for sediment under the Clean Water Act. A TMDL is the maximum amount of a pollutant that can enter a body of water while still meeting water quality standards.
“They sometimes ignore it. They sometimes do their math wrong or get their science wrong, but that’s the situation for the Northwest Branch and its tributaries, and the Anacostia. And these guys have been violating this since July of 2019, dumping sediment into that local stream, and then in the Northwest Branch,” Smith said. “Every one of those occurrences is a violation of the Clean Water Act and the counterpart law in Maryland, which prohibits discharges into waters of Maryland, waters of the state.”
Suffrage Point Project Manager Karl Granzow said in a June interview that “there has been no sediment that’s come off the property since we’ve owned it.” Granzow explained that during every storm event, the developer has an employee drive around the property and watch for any sediment that’s carried off. He said that once it appeared sediment was flowing down from a house around the corner.
“The public seems to blame the big, bad villain there, and it’s just not accurate,” Granzow said. In a May interview, Granzow claimed that construction on the lower portion of the site would replace and expand stormwater management for the whole area.
What’s wrong with a little sediment anyway?
Sediment blocks light from reaching the bottom of river and streams, which keeps aquatic plants from being able to grow and creates “a dead area on the bottom,” according to Trey Sherard, who has the title of riverkeeper at a D.C. water quality nonprofit, Anacostia Riverkeeper.
“So there’s mussels and some insects and worms and fish along the bottom of the river in a lot of places, but there’s not the lush, full ecosystem that should be there,” said Sherard.
Sherard explained that the sediment also carries toxins such as pesticides. He said even banned chemicals like DDT have been found in the water column after sediment holding it is carried by stormwater runoff. “And now it’s back up in the water column for as long as it takes that sediment to settle back down or be flushed out to the Potomac and then the [Chesapeake] Bay and the oceans.”
Construction often loosens soil and sediment while land is being cleared to make way for a new development, which can then be carried by stormwater runoff into local bodies of water.
“The river has always been and will always be brown,” Sherard said. “It’s a coastal plain river, but it should be brown like tea, where the light shines through it, not brown and murky and cloudy with high turbidity — that murkiness from all the silt and clay particles floating in the water, and they’re so fine that once they get into the water column, they just stay aloft for a tremendously long time.”
Developers like Werrlein Properties need to be permitted for projects like Suffrage Point. In Hyattsville, that process is mainly handled by the Prince George’s County Department of Permitting, Inspections, and Enforcement (DPIE).
“I think there’s a systemic problem in Prince George’s County, and not necessarily unique to Prince George’s County, but there’s a systemic problem here,” Smith said. “The laws and the [regulations] aren’t strong enough to be protective — to protect property or public health or the environment. They’re not well enforced, I think, in too many instances. … Most of the public records requests we have submitted to DPIE, most or all of them, have been stonewalled.”
DPIE did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
City opposition to rezoning and tree felling
Hyattsville City Councilmember Danny Schaible (Ward 2) has publicly announced his opposition to the project. In his June newsletter, Schaible wrote about the resumption of construction activity at the site “after a pause of nearly two years.” Granzow denies that the project had stalled, and says it was in a permitting phase.
Schaible wrote, “The work has resumed despite pending lawsuits by the City of Hyattsville, Sustainable Hyattsville, and Hyattsville residents who seek to overturn the County’s ill-advised decision to strip the lower parcel of its open space protections and rezone it to enable 41 townhouses within the 100-year floodplain.” Schaible also said the developer recently cut down “many large specimen trees” without city permits.
Houses already on the market
Presales for the housing development began on June 1, and several detached houses priced at nearly $1 million already have offers on them, according to the Suffrage Point website, with one under contract. Granzow said that the development should be completed in “two to three years, tops,” though that depends on how fast the homes can be built and sold. He called the stormwater management system for the property a “significant improvement” for the area. Granzow also said Werrlein is reducing the amount of impervious surface on the land parcel, adding green space and planting around 400-450 new trees.