Second of two parts (See Part 1: The La Plata tornado — Testament to planning)
From a planning perspective, the small bronze plaque on the front of the new town hall in La Plata says it well: “This building is dedicated to all of the people of La Plata who have always been able to turn adversity into opportunity.” Town leaders were determined to not just replace the central business district in the wake of destruction from a tornado 10 years ago, but to improve it.
“It was a tragedy but it was also seen as an opportunity from the very beginning. Even though people were in shock, that’s the way (town leaders) saw it and that was just extraordinary,” said Susan Van Buren, a former planner at the Maryland Department of Planning who worked on the La Plata design guidelines and now runs an energy consulting firm, TerraLogos, in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill. “There was occasional push back, but most everyone was seeing it for the greater good.”The design guidelines that sought to rekindle a small-town feel for the commercial area were largely done when the 2002 tornado carved through a section of town that had been envisioned as “Phase 3” of the plan. That phase wasn’t even scheduled for completion until 2011. The storm rewrote the timetable. Several major obstacles had to be resolved, however, to allow the town to fulfill its plan.
First, the businesses whose locations were destroyed had to get back on their feet right away. La Plata officials feared they might relocate out of town. Facchina Construction Co., a major developer in town, offered to set up modular units on property it owned and offered them to businesses — at whatever rent they could pay. Facchina erected a kind of “Main Street village” complete with trailers, paving and plantings in all of eight days. More than $75,000 in donations flowed in from various sources: petroleum dealers, mayors, homebuilders, Rotary clubs, plus 100 free trees from a local nursery. Town officials, who initially feared they might lose half the existing businesses, said they lost none.
Second, insurers covered replacement costs if businesses reused the same building foundations if they were salvageable, but the policies wouldn’t allow the town to fulfill its ambition to alter building locations to make the business district more pedestrian-friendly. The Maryland Insurance Commission worked to get waivers from the insurers to allow replacement buildings to be reoriented to achieve the community design concept. La Plata used grant money to offer a five-year property tax credit to businesses that rebuilt to match the town plan. It was a 100-percent credit the first year that stepped down 20 percent each year. A review board composed of an architect, a developer, a construction CEO, the head of the regional Tri-County Council and chaired by a homeowner, reviewed all the re-building plans. Grants were awarded to cover increased costs of meeting the “smart growth” guidelines, such as moving parking lots away from the curbside.
William Eckman, the former mayor, believes it helped that he and the town manager, Doug Miller, had been in their jobs for more than a decade at the time. Those relationships with local, county and state officials were instrumental in helping La Plata recover, he said. He also believes it was fortuitous that the town had just spent four years assembling its vision plan before the tornado hit.
“The 20-year plan for the city became a two-year plan. The focus was on making the downtown walkable, to have it both as a night and day destination,” said Michael Paone, a planner with the Maryland Department of Planning who covers the region and worked with town officials. “The value of having a plan was so obvious.”
The state of Maryland provided $2.5 million in immediate assistance, planning, neighborhood conservation and low-interest loans from the Department of Business and Economic Development. Steven Allan, AICP, a state planner who also worked on the recovery, recalled that when a mayor in Wisconsin phoned La Plata to trade notes about the storm response and learned that the state government had responded in force, the Wisconsin mayor seemed surprised: “You got help from the state?” he asked Mayor Eckman.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Planning and the State Highway Administration – also sped the work of mapping the devastation so people could get a better understanding of it. Within days, contract pilots were shooting aerial imagery at a scale uncommon then – four times as detailed as usual. Hard hats on the heads of cleanup crews were visible.
“The aerial photography enabled you to see all that was going on,” said Robert Dadd, manager of property mapping for the Department of Planning. “You could stand at the corner of Routes 301 and 6 and see utility poles down as far as you could see, but you couldn’t tell from the ground how far those poles had been knocked down.”
The photography became the foundation for detailed tax maps to more accurately estimate the total loss and to reestablish parcel maps. Before you rebuild, you had to know where to rebuild – and the tornado had erased many buildings and other physical landmarks. It may be hard to fathom today, in the age of high-speed broadband and “the Cloud,” but transporting large digital files over the Internet was still in its infancy 10 years ago. Property records were photocopied in La Plata and sent through the mail to Baltimore piece by piece to be placed against the aerial imagery.
Today, the town has grown to more than 8,700 residents. Twice as many downtown businesses exist compared to 10 years ago in spite of the recent widespread recession. New commercial buildings also average about twice the assessed value of the ones they replaced. (About a half-dozen vacant lots in “tornado alley” remain.) A new $2.6-million town hall became Southern Maryland’s first LEED-certified “green” building after it opened in 2005 as a new focal point for the town. And a new police headquarters, at the site of a post office that was toppled, includes a visitor center, community hall and a storm shelter built to withstand winds of 170 mph. While the question of whether the town is better off because of the tornado is a terribly awkward one, it’s safe to say the town looks much different today because of it.
“The town was bound and determined to look different,” Eckman said. “We wanted to overcome the sins of the past.”