Storm water fee could fix a serious problem, but don't count on it [Commentary]


Now that it's clear Harford County is obliged to levy a storm water management fee on just about every home in the county, the time for political diatribes about the state being over-reaching is over.

Harford County should make the best of the situation by establishing an efficient and effective storm water management operation with the dual goals of bringing storm water management facilities up to a high standard and putting itself out of business.

First, a little background is in order.

Somewhere in the stack of ownership documents for most of the roughly 72,000 owner-occupied homes in Harford County is a section dealing with the management of neighborhood common areas.

It's a responsibility that nominally falls to a neighborhood's homeowners association, and part of that responsibility is the care and maintenance of many hundreds of grassy depressions that hold water for a few minutes or so in the aftermath of a particularly heavy rain. These depressions, whose maintenance responsibilities fall to any one of a few hundred homeowners associations, are often referred to as storm water management ponds, though from a practical standpoint, they're ponds only after a strong storm.

The reason they came into being was simple: When the water from a heavy storm is allowed to run off roads, roofs and driveways, it enters natural streams and creeks much more quickly than would be the case in a wild environment. The result is unnatural flooding, erosion and damage to the Chesapeake Bay and other vital waterways. In addition, the runoff water carries with it unnatural nutrient pollution ranging from lawn fertilizer to pet droppings.

Storm water management ponds allow sudden bursts of water to settle then flow at a slower, more natural rate into the environment, while allowing some of the nutrient pollution to settle out.

The problem is the ponds don't last forever and the oversight of maintenance responsibilities is rather ambiguous. Sure, homeowners associations are nominally responsible, but to what degree can they be compelled to act to fix a defective pond? Who is responsible for checking on the ponds?

To date, the answers to such questions have been hard to find.

Moreover, the county government, in its zeal to be business friendly years back, was rather laissez faire in the organization and financing of homeowners associations. For certain, such associations were required in many neighborhoods, and they are financially responsible for the storm water management ponds, but the association fees levied often are way out of whack with what it would take to rebuild, repair or even maintain a storm water management pond.

Thus, came a state law that obliges the counties, Harford among them, to levy a storm water fee on just about every home. It's a rather intrusive action on the part of the state government, though there was good reason for the state to act. Uncontrolled runoff degrades the Chesapeake Bay and the bay is an important resource to the whole state; managing that runoff is supposed to be the responsibility of the counties, though the counties have largely abdicated by having farmed out care of storm water management ponds to homeowners associations.

What now?

It appears the storm water fee levied against most homes in Harford County will be $125, assuming the county council approves the pending legislation introduced and backed by County Executive David Craig. When multiplied by the more than 72,000 owner occupied homes in the county, this fee (or tax if you prefer) will produce the substantial sum of $9 million a year, and that doesn't cover another 18,000 renter occupied dwellings whose owners will be dunned at a similar rate by the county.

Keep in mind, however, that the costs associated with small pond construction are generally in the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, though costs vary substantially from project to project. Very roughly speaking, it would be possible to bring 100 to 200 ponds, maybe more, up to standard with a single year's worth of the take from the storm water levy. It's conceivable that within a few years, most storm water ponds in the county would be up to snuff, and the fee could be cut substantially to provide a baseline for making regular and routine repairs.

Administration of such a program could be accomplished within an existing part of the county government that is already knowledgeable on the locations of storm water facilities.

Don't expect any of that to happen.

What is more likely is the slow evolution of a storm water management pond bureaucracy within the county government. This is doubly likely, if the project is taken on grudgingly by the county government.

It would be nice to see it made to work, though, as it might make for a cleaner bay. Just don't expect a dollar-for-dollar benefit from this increased tax. Government doesn't work that way, including in Harford County.

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