Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

County activists launching Web site to help preserve environment, quality of life

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Upper Marlboro community activists are building a Web site they hope will give residents ‘‘the wherewithal, connections and information” they need to slow the rapid growth in Prince George’s County that they say is damaging the area’s quality of life.

The Prince George’s Environmental Knowledge Web, which should launch in July, will be an archive of useful information relating to the environment, land use and transportation in the county, said project leader Charles Reilly.

‘‘It’s really about providing citizens the wherewithal, connections and information they need to be effective regarding government decisions that affect the quality of life in Prince George’s,” said Reilly, a community activist who works as a researcher at Gallaudet University.

The Web site will help activists around the county ‘‘find out who’s doing what,” he added.

Reilly envisions the Web site will include links to data, studies and county Web sites that contain information on development decisions, for example. It also will include tutorials on subjects such as county zoning laws and interviews with activists who have grappled with quality-of-life issues in the past.

The Web project is being administered by EarthReports, Inc., an Upper Marlboro-based nonprofit, in collaboration with the Sierra Club and other organizations. EarthReports received a $15,000 county grant in October from County Councilman Thomas E. Dernoga’s discretionary fund.

The money is needed for Web site hosting and to pay interns to conduct interviews and a professional transcriber to transcribe them, Reilly said.

Dernoga (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel, said he gave the grant – an amount larger than he normally gives – because ‘‘there’s not a strong network” among civic and environmental activists in the county.

‘‘I think a lot of people have been concerned about this issue for years,” Dernoga said.

Fred Tutman, executive director of EarthReports, said that robust growth over the years – the county has added more than 100,000 residents since 1990 – has eroded the county’s ‘‘strong tradition of civic activism,” and that the Web site represents an effort to rekindle that activism.

One of the people Reilly and his collaborators hope to interview is Oxon Hill resident Bonnie Bick, who has been active in local political and environmental issues for 40 years.

Among her accomplishments in grassroots activism, Bick said she helped convince the county to invest in the community around the expansive National Harbor development as it was being built.

Reilly and his collaborators hope to interview Bick on some of her experiences.

‘‘I’m excited about it. It’s exactly what we need to do,” Bick said of the Web project. ‘‘We need to share our information so we can understand the importance of every individual’s contribution.”

Part of the aim is to make it easy for Prince George’s County residents to share information, Reilly said.

‘‘It’s a shame for an association to pay a lawyer to do a study and then have it dropped into a desk drawer where nobody sees it,” said Reilly, who is vice president of the Patuxent River Civic Association and is chairman of the county’s Sierra Club branch.

The project’s leaders caution that the project is not anti-development.

‘‘It’s a civic engagement project,” said Tutman, a longtime Upper Marlboro resident.

‘‘I think development has emerged as a big issue in Prince George’s because it’s a county that relies on residential housing growth to balance its budget,” Tutman added. ‘‘It’s not an anti-growth project, it’s anti-effects of growth, the onerous effects.”

E-mail Andy Zieminski at azieminski@gazette.net.