Smarter treatment

September 19, 2006

Balancing environmental and economic interests is seldom easy. But the possible effect of Maryland's so-called flush tax to worsen poorly managed growth demonstrates how complex this effort can become. The latest critique amounts to this: The flush tax may actually be harming prospects for a cleaner Chesapeake Bay if, by financing sewage treatment plant upgrades, it's accommodating the wrong types of development and accelerating the destruction of more pristine spaces and farmland across the watershed.

No one is claiming Maryland shouldn't clean up its sewage treatment plants, of course. The flush tax, a charge of $30 annually for most homeowners - is intended to reduce the amount of harmful nutrients discharged into Maryland waterways from the state's 66 largest treatment plants. By modernizing these plants, the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus poured into the Chesapeake is eventually expected to be reduced by nearly 8 million pounds a year.

But these upgrades can also allow sewage treatment plants to expand capacity. Reducing pollutants is good. Even expanding capacity is probably helpful. After all, if Maryland is going to have growth, better to have it hooked to a public sewer than a septic tank.

Unfortunately, that's where matters get complicated.

Chesapeake Bay restoration grants are designed to clean up the worst polluting plants. The Maryland Department of the Environment doesn't factor in how the communities may potentially misuse any increased capacity. As a spokesman for the department told The Sun, "We don't look at what they do afterward." Controlling growth is considered a local matter.

That's a mistake. And it's another example of how the Ehrlich administration has repeatedly missed opportunities to build on Maryland's Smart Growth legacy. The Smart Growth concept demands that the state take a more active role in planning; without it, the MDE and other state agencies are merely enablers of bad local planning decisions.

That requires that all kinds of state programs - funding for new highways, schools and yes, even sewage plant improvements - be coordinated so that areas where development ought to take place get priority. Redeveloping older urban centers is good. Development that impacts wetlands or other environmentally sensitive areas is not. The danger is that government doesn't look at this bigger picture.

Again, this does not suggest that the flush tax is a bad idea. But the effort, approved just two years ago by the governor and legislature, is still in its infancy. Making the program part of a coordinated campaign to control sprawl would simply make it better.

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