A calm end for storm-water debate

Our view: Compromise is disappointing, but it could have been much worse

March 10, 2010

The compromise Del. Maggie McIntosh brokered among environmentalists, the O'Malley administration and builders over storm-water regulations that are set to go into effect this spring will mean more pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay, more erosion, less clean drinking water and assorted other environmental damage. But it could have been much, much worse.

Powerful political figures, including Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., were arguing that the storm-water regulations would set back smart growth efforts, promote sprawl and hurt the environment - an overblown concern but one that created an opening for developers and their allies to gut the new regulations altogether. Bills submitted by lawmakers would have, among other things, delayed the regulations by a decade - both for the redevelopment projects local governments were worried about and for greenfields development.

The compromise plan, by contrast, is tightly targeted and reasonable. It sets out ground rules for how projects in the development pipeline will be considered for grandfathering under the old regulations and gives some added flexibility to redevelopment projects.

If adopted, the regulations would allow development projects with preliminary approval to operate under the old rules so long as they get final approval from local government within three years and start construction by 2017. That at least gives some certainty that developers won't hold on to their old standards forever. And the compromise would allow redevelopment projects in specified areas to take less-drastic steps to reduce storm-water runoff, provided that they maintain efforts to eliminate pollutants from that water.

The reason it is so crucial to keep the bulk of these regulations in place is the increasing harm being done to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries by runoff from developed areas. Impervious surfaces - roads, rooftops, parking lots and the like - prevent the normal absorption of storm water into the ground and instead channel it, along with whatever pollutants it picks up along the way, into streams and eventually the bay. The state has made efforts to reduce point-source pollution, such as sewage treatment plants and agricultural pollution. But pollution from runoff in developed areas has been on the rise and is expected to get worse as the population increases. Severely limiting or delaying the regulations would have been extremely harmful.

It is unfortunate that the rules adopted just three years ago had to be weakened in any way. But this compromise is tightly focused on opponents' most reasonable concerns. Developers had reason to wonder whether developments that were well down the road of planning but lacking in final approval would have to essentially start from scratch to cope with the new requirements. And given the difficulties associated with redevelopment and its general environmental benefits, it was appropriate to give some flexibility to those projects. But the important thing is that the compromise, if formally adopted, would maintain the state's commitment to cutting down on what has emerged as a major threat to the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Readers respond
As long as a quarter of the population on the Eastern Seaboard keeps using the bay as a urinal, you can initiate any other program, but none will work. The first step to clean the bay is to force the EPA to implement the Clean Water Act as it was intended, but that apparently is too much to ask.

Peter Maier

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