A deal that would have averted a legislative battle over giving Maryland developers some breaks from new state pollution-control requirements came unglued Wednesday, with a House leader warning of a "bloodbath" in Annapolis over the hotly debated environmental issue in the General Assembly's closing weeks.
With emergency regulations to soften the state's storm-water management law held up by a Prince George's County senator, the House Environmental Matters Committee took up legislation that supporters said would write the changes into the 2007 law. Opponents were barred from testifying at the hearing, with the panel's chairwoman, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, telling them to sit down when they tried to stand in protest.
McIntosh, a Baltimore City Democrat, had tabled developer-backed bills to weaken or delay the pollution regulations two weeks ago after getting builders, local officials and some environmental groups to agree on a compromise. But the deal has appalled other environmental advocates, including former Gov. Harry Hughes, who helped launch the effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay 27 years ago.
The state Department of the Environment had pledged to amend its regulations requiring developers to do more to control the rainfall washing fertilizer, oil and other pollutants from new buildings, pavement and lawns into nearby streams and the bay. The agency proposed to "grandfather" some developments in the pipeline, letting them go forward without having to meet the new rules. The state also offered to let local governments ease some requirements for redevelopments.
Developers complain that it's unfair to make them redesign projects in the works, and local officials warn that the runoff controls required of redevelopment may exacerbate suburban sprawl.
But with some activists denouncing the deal, Sen. Paul S. Pinsky, chairman of the committee that reviews regulations, has threatened to hold up the proposed rule changes. Hughes joined former Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, former U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings and about 30 other activists at a State House news conference before the hearing to denounce any move to ease the rules, slated to take effect May 4. Hughes said the new rules were needed and "reasonable," because polluted runoff from developed land is growing.
"It's my hope the committee will kill the bill," Hughes said. "If not there, in the House; and if not there, in the Senate."
At the hearing, Del. Marvin Holmes, a Prince George's Democrat, said a bill he had introduced to grant developers even more concessions had been scaled back to write into law the terms of the deal struck two weeks ago.
McIntosh expressed frustration that the deal she had engineered had come undone, requiring last-minute legislation.
"If I thought in any way, shape or form that we are weakening the regulations, I wouldn't be sitting here," she said after the hearing. She said she didn't see the need for legislation to amend the storm-water pollution law, given assurances about flexibility coming from state regulators, but felt it necessary because of friction between the building and environmental communities. Now, McIntosh said, "Because of Senator Pinsky, we're going to have a bloodbath. It's too bad."