Fees proposed statewide to cut runoff pollution

Localities would determine charge to clean up fouled storm water

March 03, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler

Environmental advocates, stream restoration experts and local officials urged state lawmakers Tuesday to require all jurisdictions to charge property owners a fee to deal with the Chesapeake Bay's growing problem - pollution washing off lawns, driveways, buildings and parking lots.

Members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee heard opposing views on legislation requiring a "storm-water remediation fee" for every city, county and town.

Polluted runoff from urban and suburban lands is a significant and growing source of pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay, advocates noted. Rainfall washes lawn chemicals, animal waste, oil, dirt and debris off lawns and pavement into storm drains, where it enters streams and rivers and ultimately the bay. The problem is especially acute in older communities like Baltimore and much of its suburbs, which were developed decades ago before storm-water pollution controls were required.

"All of us should be paying for [reducing] storm-water runoff because all of us are part of the problem," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chief sponsor of the fee bill.

Local governments bear responsibility for keeping storm water from damaging their streams and polluting downstream waters, yet they lack the funding to install and maintain the infrastructure that would remedy the problems.

Retrofitting storm drains and reducing pavement in existing communities to keep litter, oil, pet waste and lawn fertilizer out of the water could cost billions in Baltimore alone - and upward of $20 billion statewide, by some estimates.

State lawmakers authorized local governments in 1992 to impose fees and earmark the revenues for storm-water control, yet only six have done so - Charles, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, plus the cities of Annapolis, Rockville and Takoma Park. The average fee for four of the six communities is $13 per person a year, according to legislative analysts. Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties have talked about fees, but balked at imposing them.

"The bay is the state's responsibility," said Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen. He argued that where counties and cities are "failing to do their part, it's absolutely appropriate for the state to mandate it."

Legislative analysts estimate that a fee of about $1 a month per householder would raise $74 million a year statewide. However, the bill would leave the size of the fees up to local officials and require that all funds raised in a community be spent on fixing storm runoff problems in that community.

Under the bill, all homeowners in each community would be charged the same amount. Nonresidential property owners would have to pay based on the amount of pavement and roof they have. Such "impervious surfaces" are the bane of stream health, biologists say, because streets, parking lots, walkways and buildings prevent rainfall from soaking into the ground.

A storm-water fee is needed to deal with urban and suburban runoff, argues Clean Water Action's Andrew Galli, just as the "flush tax" was called for to upgrade sewage treatment plants in Maryland. That fee was adopted six years ago. The storm-water fee's prospects this year remain to be seen. It nearly passed the Senate last year, but legislative leaders this year have pledged not to enact any legislation that would raise taxes or fees.

The bill drew opposition from representatives for apartment owners and from the Maryland Association of Realtors, who argued that the fee could hit homeowners and landlords at a time when the real estate industry is still reeling.

"I don't think there's a Marylander for whom the Chesapeake Bay restoration isn't near and dear to their heart," said Katherine Howard of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, but she warned that she believes that "this may have a disparate impact." Realtors' spokeswoman Susan Mitchell pointed out that many homeowners are still fighting to stay out of foreclosure.

"Do you think this is the appropriate time to impose a fee structure like this on our citizens?" asked Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Dorchester County Republican.

"All of us are a little bit allergic to the word 'fee' in this election year," acknowledged Raskin. But he pointed out that every local government could determine how high or low to set the fee, and he argued that it would generate jobs by providing funds for storm drain repairs, stream restoration and other projects.

Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, told lawmakers that Baltimore needs to raise $35 million to $50 million to pay for the storm-water cleanup expected to be required by the state. Failure to take the mandated steps could subject the city to millions in fines, she pointed out.

Advocates said that a statewide poll they commissioned shows that half of those polled would be willing to pay an unspecified "reasonable" monthly storm-water fee. But 73 percent of the 400 Marylanders questioned by OpinionWorks of Annapolis said they would support the fee if one were imposed in every community statewide, the revenues were spent locally and they would generate jobs.

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