House Speaker Michael E. Busch and the O'Malley administration have thrown their support behind legislation that would impose a fee on all new development in Maryland to pay for programs to stop farm runoff pollution from entering the Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay Green Fund bill also is designed to discourage suburban sprawl by charging a higher fee for projects in rural areas than in designated growth zones.
Supporters say the new fee would generate $130 million a year - twice the amount raised annually by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s "flush tax," which helps finance improvements to sewage treatment plants.
"This is about saving the greatest estuary in the Western Hemisphere," Busch said at a news conference yesterday, flanked by a dozen lawmakers and environmental activists who support the Green Fund bill.
"It's not only about us and our children, but future generations," Busch said. "The bay is in dire need."
The new fee would be collected from developers by local governments and sent to the state to help farmers pay for anti-pollution measures, such as cover crops, buffer strips between fields and waterways, manure sheds and other efforts to prevent runoff into the bay.
Busch said the fund would strengthen Maryland's 1997 Smart Growth law by adding financial incentives to build within priority areas chosen by local governments.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's nominee for agriculture secretary, Roger L. Richardson, also attended the event. O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the new fund would work well with the governor's planned BayStat program, which will analyze data on pollution entering the estuary.
The Green Fund legislation, proposed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is opposed by some Republican leaders and homebuilders, who object to what they say would be increased costs for homebuyers.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, asked later for his position, called the bill "laudable" and "very important," and said he supports "finding funds to clean up the bay." But Miller said he's not sure whether the General Assembly will pass the legislation, given that the state needs to raise money to deal with a projected deficit in future years.
"We are going to be focused on balancing the budget. We are going to have our hands full looking at sales tax increases, lotteries, slot machines," Miller said. "It plays into that situation."
Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader from Southern Maryland, said the state faces a huge gap between revenues and expenditures next year, and that this bill would do nothing to solve it.
"My head is spinning," said O'Donnell, a Republican. "How can you create new fees to drive up the cost of construction when we haven't even begun to fix our existing structural deficit?"
Tom Ballentine, policy director for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said the fund would place an unfair burden on homebuyers to clean up pollution from farms.
"I'm not sure that forcing new homebuyers to pay a disproportionate share of cleanup is really equitable," Ballentine said.
Here's how the Green Fund would work, according to Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Any developer proposing an "impervious surface" - including parking lots, roofs and sidewalks - would have to pay a fee to local government when he or she applies for a building permit. Hard surfaces like this contribute to pollution in the bay because rain washes contaminants into waterways.
The fees for blacktop and roofing outside of Smart Growth areas selected by local and state governments would be $2 per square foot. The fee for surfaces inside designated growth zones would be 25 cents per square foot, Coble said. Government projects would not be subject to the fee.
Developers could reduce the fee by up to 25 percent by taking steps to make parking lots more porous or using other measures to soften the environmental impact.
If builders pass on the fees to homebuyers, the increase in the cost of a mortgage on an average house on a quarter-acre lot would be $5 per month inside a growth area and $38 per month elsewhere, Coble said.
The $130 million raised annually would go to the Maryland comptroller's office, in a dedicated fund. Thirty-five percent of the money would go to the state Department of Agriculture and be distributed to farmers to help pay for cover crops that reduce runoff and other programs.
Smaller portions of the money would go to other conservation initiatives, including incentives for affordable housing in designated growth areas and paying for storm water system improvements and wetlands restoration.
Since Maryland passed the landmark Smart Growth law in 1997, 75 percent of new subdivisions have been built outside the "priority funding areas" targeted for growth.
This is in part because of a weakness in the law. The Smart Growth program allows the governor to discourage projects in rural areas by threatening to withhold state money for roads and sewers. But the state cannot stop developers who have enough money to pay for their own roads and sewers.
Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said the Green Fund would add both "teeth" and a "high IQ" to the Smart Growth laws.
"Development is the last threat to our Chesapeake Bay," McIntosh said. "It doesn't have to be, if we grow properly."
Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.