`Flush' funds enable building

Bay money aids development

September 11, 2006|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

ELKTON -- This rural town at the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay broke ground in July on a new sewage treatment plant paid for, in part, with money from Maryland's new "flush tax."

Six days later, the mayor signed an agreement allowing a sprawling, 2,500-home development on cornfields, woods, wetlands and environmentally sensitive waterfront next to a bay tributary.

The timing wasn't a coincidence. Elkton officials reversed their policy against annexing land for development as soon as the town received $7.5 million from the state's Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, according to town documents and officials. The fund provides grants to improve sewage plants using $30 annual fees paid by homeowners across the state.

The 2004 law - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s signature initiative - has been applauded by environmentalists because it will help reduce of pollution flowing out of sewage plants, feeding low-oxygen "dead zones" in the bay.

But a review of the first 10 projects being built with money from the fund reveals that in some cases, the new plants are spurring development that is disturbing to conservationists.

Half of these new plants will have more capacity than the ones they're replacing, to enable the construction of more homes. At least three of the plants - in Elkton, Kent Island and St. Michaels - will serve proposed developments with hundreds or thousands of new houses on environmentally sensitive waterfront areas, state records show.

So, even as the new plants reduce pollution into the water, the new development will bring other problems for the bay - more blacktop and, with it, more polluted runoff, as well as traffic and sprawl, critics say.

"Sewage treatment as a public service is a double-edged sword," said George Maurer, director of land planning for the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. "It can accommodate growth in the areas where you want it, and it can also be misused to allow more development than you want, in areas that aren't suited for it."

Some residents south of Elkton are angry that the $2.50-a-month flush tax payments they've been making to improve the bay are also helping a developer pave wetlands and fields.

"We thought the flush tax was for one thing - helping the bay - but it turns out it's for something else," said Elizabeth Keefer, a retired teacher who lives next to property targeted for development. "I always thought there was a snake in the grass."

An Ehrlich administration spokesman staunchly defended the program, saying the state is paying for much-needed improvements to aging sewage treatment plants that have been fouling the bay.

"The governor's program is one of the most proactive programs to improve the bay in the last 20 years," said Robert Ballinger, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. The program is designed to help upgrade the largest 66 municipal waste treatment plants in Maryland and reduce the amount of nitrogen pollution flowing into the bay by 7.5 million pounds a year.

Ballinger said managing the growth that follows sewage improvements is primarily a local responsibility, not something for the state to decide.

"It's a local issue, growth," Ballinger said. "We are looking at the quality of the water and the quality of the bay. ... . We don't look at what they do afterward," he said, unless new subdivisions exceed a plant's capacity.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee who played a key role in approving the program, said the intention of the fund was to improve - not expand - sewage plants.

"They are absolutely breaking the intent of the law," McIntosh said of communities that use flush tax money to build bigger sewage plants. "We made it very clear that it is not the intent of the bill to encourage or spur further development or annexation."

McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said the Department of the Environment is wrong not to be more concerned about development that follows the grants. "I think the MDE should be about making sure our environment is protected, not about whether growth is protected," McIntosh said.

Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, agreed that the point of the "flush tax" was not to boost development. But she said concerns about sprawl and building in sensitive waterfront areas should be addressed by other state programs, not the bay fund.

"We know that there is increased population in Maryland and that people are going to be moving in," Coble said. "With the increase in population, there is also going to be an increase in waste, and the best way to treat that waste is with sewage plants."

In Elkton, Mayor Joseph Fisona and town contractors said the new plant will feature technology that will cut the amount of nitrogen pollution into the bay by more than half. The reduction will be significant even with the Southside LLC housing development, which could make the town of about 12,000 people almost 50 percent larger.

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