A leadership deficit

October 19, 2005

How's this for an unlikely scenario? In notoriously tax-averse Anne Arundel County, citizens are clamoring for a new fee on property owners to restore eroded and polluted waterways.

Elected officials, though, are wary.

A grass-roots movement of environmental and civic groups is working to build support for creation of a dedicated fund that would be used to redesign the county's antiquated storm water management system and rescue the properties, waterways and wildlife being destroyed by unchecked runoff.

Their proposal is based on a county study of options for financing an estimated $400 million backlog in restoration work required on Anne Arundel's 1,239 miles of freshwater rivers and streams. The research concluded that the fairest and most efficient method - and one commonly used across the nation - is to charge property owners a fee based on the amount of land they have covered with surfaces that can't absorb rainwater.

For most homeowners, the proposed fee would be about $5 a month - the same rate imposed in 2003 by Annapolis officials on city residents.

Yet this unusual drive has been stymied by County Executive Janet S. Owens, whose formal support is critical. Ms. Owens says a dedicated fee is the only answer to the problem but requires a massive education campaign that can't be completed before her second term ends more than a year from now.

Distancing herself from what critics would surely call a tax increase might be wise for a politician with her eye on higher office. But such timidity tarnishes any claim Ms. Owens could make to leadership, and delays repair of ever-worsening damage.

With 532 miles of tidal shoreline in addition to its freshwater streams, Anne Arundel's environment is particularly vulnerable to storm water contamination. Other counties have been no smarter about handling run-off, but the sheer volume of chemicals and sediment washing off Arundel's paved spots has been a leading source of Chesapeake Bay pollution and degradation of its fisheries.

Engineers now believe the most effective techniques for managing storm water duplicate nature, such as planting vegetation to increase soil absorption and collecting rainwater in cisterns to speed evaporation. Such techniques can be required in new projects, but in much of the county damage has been done and is expensive to fix.

Montgomery County confronted a similar problem a few years ago and in 2002 became the first county in Maryland to impose a utility fee dedicated to watershed restoration. It raises about $3.5 million a year. Anne Arundel's proposal is expected to raise about $20 million annually - with breaks for those who manage rainwater on their own property.

Nobody likes paying taxes. But there's a powerful case to be made here - and a chance for Ms. Owens to exhibit leadership that would burnish her legacy far more than bucking the problem off to a successor.

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