Waterways fee is shaky

Leopold restoration proposal facing opposition from council

October 12, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN REPORTER

A proposal by Anne Arundel's chief executive to create a fee to repair damaged waterways might be headed for legislative purgatory, with Republicans and Democrats alike arguing that it would overburden taxpayers, curb affordable housing and put new retail centers at a competitive disadvantage.

"Right now, it's unclear if the SMART fund is even going to pass," County Councilman Josh Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat, said of the Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries fund.

An alternative has emerged, from Republican council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., who during election season last year opposed a broad-based storm-water restoration fee on all property owners.

At Tuesday's work session on the topic, however, he said that Leopold's plan to levy a fee only on future development doesn't go far enough because it fails to address the disparate environmental impact of older development.

He said he would consider a $25 flat fee on owners of developed property to help pay for waterway restoration.

"That's my mind-set, a controversial mind-set, I know," Dillon said.

Anne Arundel officials said this week that the county faces a $5 billion price tag to restore waterways and install controls to curb runoff - a figure several times higher than previously estimated.

They called County Executive John R. Leopold's plan to create a $5.3 million fund "a good start."

Republican Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks agreed that greater resources must be devoted to undo damage caused by decades of environmentally unsound development.

But he echoed the criticism of several colleagues by calling Leopold's bill a "tax" and saying the county should realign its budget priorities.

The county spends $11 million a year on waterway restoration efforts.

"If I was an average person paying property taxes, I would be saying: If this is so important, find it in your own budget," Middlebrooks said.

A public hearing on Leopold's proposal is set for Monday, and a vote could occur that night. But some council members who are lining up against it said they want to postpone a vote until next year, after the General Assembly weighs a statewide fee on new development to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Known as the "Green Fund," it could generate $130 million a year for restoration projects.

Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican, said he's worried about taxpayers facing "double taxation" if Leopold's measure and the Green Fund are enacted. He also said that the fees would trickle down from to businesses moving into new development, making them less competitive than those in older units.

The bill is Leopold's attempt to address storm-water runoff over the county's 530 miles of shoreline, which he hailed as a campaign priority.

His initiative is far less aggressive than one proposed by environmentalists for a $60 flat fee on all property owners - which could generate $30 million or more. But advocates have supported Leopold's bill as an important first step.

Leopold said yesterday that his initiative "strikes the right balance between the need to begin to address storm-water management problems and the stark reality that we have a conservative, tax-adverse county."

Fees would be paid by property owners based on the amount of impervious surfaces, such as driveways, parking lots and home additions, they create.

A charge of 25 cents per square foot of impervious surface would be imposed if a grading permit is required; for building permits, the charge would be 15 cents. No fee would be charged if a new structure is built within the existing building footprint. It would replace the current storm drainage fee, which county budget officials said generates $300,000 a year.

Noting that the Green Fund would place fees on existing development, and the SMART fund would levy charges on new building, Leopold called them "complementary."

But Leopold's initiative of drawing fees solely from new construction is unfair, several council members said, because it's inadequate to address the repair backlog and places the burden on developers who comply with more stringent runoff standards.

Two Democrats, Councilman Jamie Benoit of Crownsville and Cohen, said they are hopeful that Dillon's position could produce a bill with a broader fee structure.

"It sounds like Ron and I are very much of the like mind," Benoit said. "He wants to do something that's fair and has a meaningful impact."

Reilly, who said he was "generally against" Leopold's bill, called Dillon's approach "more tolerable than the current situation."

In the meantime, Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, said she is drafting a bill that would create tax incentives for homeowners installing systems to limit runoff into streams and rivers.

"Why don't, before we look at correcting the problem, that we incentivize good behavior?" Vitale said Tuesday.

Those on both sides of the debate agree a hybrid bill containing tax incentives and a fee may be palatable.

"A part of the solution will be incentive-driven, incentive-based," said Councilman Daryl Jones, a Severn Democrat who campaigned against a broad-based fee. "I don't think the door is closed to anything, but the door to a mandatory fee or tax on the county taxpayer is a very hard door to open."

Leopold said he would "entertain" placing charges on existing development if there's enough council support.

"But, first, let's get four votes for $5 million," he said.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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