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Maryland town unveils 'greener' path

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 10:09 PM

The tiny town of Edmonston, one of the Washington area's lowest-lying communities, has long been a victim of its environment.

Speeding freight trains cut through town along Route 1, and buses whiz by on Decatur Street, the town's main drag. The Anacostia River splits Edmonston in two, causing flooding during heavy rains. Located in Prince George's County between much larger Hyattsville and Bladensburg, Edmonston is not a place where money flows freely.

But Edmonston - an unlikely champion of the green movement - is now calling Decatur the "East Coast's greenest street," thanks to $1.3 million in stimulus money and a year of construction.

"We have no confirmation on that, but I will boast that it is the greenest street in the country," said Edmonston Mayor Adam C. Ortiz, who began working on revamping Decatur in 2007. "Block by block, from the tops of the trees to the stormwater system under the ground, it is as environmentally responsible as possible."

Edmonston officials unveiled the new Decatur Street on Tuesday. Running three-fourths of a mile, it is now lined with about 30 maple, elm, sycamore and oak trees and energy-efficient, wind-powered streetlights. Crews installed a bike lane and narrowed the roadway by about eight feet, reducing the amount of pavement. The new sidewalks are made of permeable concrete blocks and landscaped areas, or "rain gardens," that filter water naturally through the ground.

Green streets have been built before, in Seattle and Portland, Ore., but they're hard to find in such towns as Edmonston, which has no stormwater filtration system. Edmonston (population, about 1,500) has always branded itself as a working-class town, a place where less than 10 percent of its residents have attended college, Ortiz said. During his speech Tuesday at the revamped corner of 49th Avenue and Decatur, Ortiz spoke of a racially diverse but poor community ravaged in recent years by flooding.

"I like to say that this is a diverse community except we don't have any rich people . . . This is a place where people can get their footing," he said.

Edmonston was founded about 150 years ago by two freed slaves, Adam and Emily Plummer, who bought 10 acres near their original home in Riverdale after the Civil War.

It was turned into a dairy farm, before modest cottages and bungalows sprang up at the turn of the 20th century.

But for decades, flooding has been Edmonston's scourge. One particularly heavy rain in 2006 flooded more than 50 homes. A pumping station installed at the Anacostia's edge in 2007 has kept the town somewhat dry, but the new Decatur Street stormwater system is designed to naturally filter 90 percent of the 40 inches of rain the town gets each year.

"We never once flooded from the Anacostia," Ortiz said. "We flooded from the runoff of parking lots and shopping centers, roofs, buildings and streets from the areas around us."

Bill Fronck Sr., who has lived off and on in a Victorian on Decatur since 1941, said he has replaced two sets of appliances because of flooding in the past decade and has watched his "quaint, small town turn into something else."

"Hopefully the new street will help," said Fronck, 75, a retired Realtor. "This is the best change we've seen here in a long time."

Decatur Street has already won its admirers. The Chesapeake Bay Trust, which provided the initial $25,000 grant for the Edmonston project, plans to announce eight other green-street initiatives in Southeast Washington and the Baltimore area Wednesday, said Associate Director Jana L.D. Davis.

"If this can be replicated, many of these surprisingly inexpensive features can really help the environmental health of the bay," she said.

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