Environmental legislation in Virginia and Maryland this year was largely overshadowed by other issues and circumstances. Tax proposals took center stage in Virginia, while Maryland lawmakers, working with a newly elected governor, took a cautious approach on almost all major legislation.

Still, several significant bills were passed in Virginia, including a measure that will allow the state to drop out of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which jointly manages migratory fish [see related article], and controversial measures intended to encourage companies to perform environmental assessments on their operations. A bill seeking to better coordinate state agency actions that affect land use was defeated.

Maryland's session was marked largely by bills that didn't pass, including almost all measures seeking to either weaken or strengthen environmental programs. For the second year in a row, lawmakers rejected attempts to take over the federal wetlands permit program. The biggest debate focused on the controversial new vehicle emissions testing program designed to help bring the state into compliance with federal Clean Air Act standards. Lawmakers and the governor agreed on a compromise that would delay implementation of the new program until July 1996.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the two-year legislative session is still in its early phase.

Here are highlights of environmental legislative actions in Maryland and Virginia in 1995.

Virginia

Fisheries management

The General Assembly approved a bill allowing the state to withdraw from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which develops management plans for fish that migrate along the coast, effective July 1, 1996. Under legislation approved by Congress in 1993, states that fail to enforce fishing limits outlined in an ASMFC management plan may face a federally enforced fishing moratorium for the species in question. Opponents to the federal legislation have questioned its constitutionality and complained about the Virginia catch limits set in ASMFC plans, particularly for striped bass.

The General Assembly adopted several measures to protect the blue crab fishery. One bill directs the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to prepare and implement a blue crab fishery management plan that addresses traditional management issues as well as habitat, water quality protection and restoration. A companion resolution directs the VMRC and the Virginia delegation to the Chesapeake Bay Commission to provide a forum for public and legislative involvement in the development of the required management plan. The resolution calls for the study of several other issues, including methods for determining minimum crab sizes.

Three resolutions were adopted as the result of a study on the shellfish industry that was conducted by the Virginia delegation to the Chesapeake Bay Commission. The first resolution directs the VMRC to examine its laws and regulations to identify those that unduly inhibit the development and operation of aquaculture facilities. A second resolution directs the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to prepare a strategic plan for molluscan disease and other research. It also directed VIMS to begin the process of seeking approval for in-water testing of non-native oyster species in order to determine their survivability and resistance to disease. A third resolution directs the Department of Health to examine the impacts of boat discharges on water quality and shellfish resources as well as the feasibility of establishing no-discharge zones for boats in Virginia waters.

Environmental Protection

The General Assembly approved a bill aimed at encouraging businesses to conduct environmental assessments by granting them immunity from administrative or civil penalties if they voluntarily disclose any violations identified during the assessment. The law also considers information that does not demonstrate a clear, imminent or substantial danger to public health or the environment as "privileged" and does not have to be publicly released. Some argued that the grants of privilege and immunity were too broad and would shield polluters from answering for their actions. Proponents argued that the bill provided an incentive for reporting problems and would therefore benefit the environment.

The assembly passed another bill that would grant immunity to those who voluntarily clean up releases of pollution prior to administrative or legal action. The Department of Environmental Quality will write regulations that establish remediation standards and procedures and must certify satisfactory completion of cleanups. The bill waives all rights and future claims of a property owner affected by a pollution release who denies access to his property by the polluter for the purpose of remediation. Chesapeake Bay Management

A Virginia Chesapeake Bay Partnership Council was created to advise the governor, secretary of natural resources and the General Assembly on issues related to Virginia's participation in the Chesapeake Bay Program. The council's membership will include 12 citizens, the chairmen of relevant General Assembly committees and the chairman of the Virginia Delegation to the Chesapeake Bay Commission. One Virginia member from each of the Bay Program's standing advisory committees will serve as ex-officio members.

Legislation was passed allowing the $385,000 that has been raised through the sale of a special "Friend of the Chesapeake" license plate to be spent on improving public access at state parks, oyster restoration, shoreline erosion protection and construction of fish passages on blocked streams. The money has been sitting in escrow since 1992. A seven-member commission, including citizens, an environmentalist and members of the House and Senate, will recommend where money raised through future plate sales is spent.

Land Use and Population Growth

A bill intended to improve Virginia's approach to growth and development by better coordinating the programs and expenditures of state government was defeated. The measure, a recommendation of the assembly's Commission on Population Growth and Development, which is in its final year of work, sought to create a strategic planning process for executive branch secretariats and agencies. Opponents charged the bill was a back-door attempt to usurp local planning authority.

Another commission initiative, the Virginia Geographic Information Network, continued to move forward. The General Assembly adopted a resolution that establishes a joint House and Senate subcommittee to examine organizational and other issues related to the implementation and maintenance of VGIN.

Also approved was legislation to give the Virginia Marine Resources Commission management responsibility for "ungranted lands" on the state's Eastern Shore. A recent study estimated that about 28,000 acres of previously unidentified shores, marshes and meadowlands belong to the state. The legislation calls for an inventory of these lands and sets up a committee to advise VMRC on their management.

Maryland

Air Quality and Transportation

Much of this year's activity focused on the implementation of the state's enhanced vehicle emissions testing program to achieve compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. The test would require cars to be taken to a central testing facility every two years and be placed on a "dynamometer," a treadmill-like device that tests a car's emissions while being operated at different speeds. The test is considered the most cost-effective means of reducing automobile emissions to meet federal clean air standards, but it drew widespread public opposition. A compromise was approved that delays the expanded testing program until June 1996 and the price of the test will be reduced from $17 to $14. In the meantime, the state will continue its current tailpipe testing, along with a visual check under the hood to make sure that anti-pollution devices haven't been tampered with.

Also approved was a bill that provides state income tax credits on the purchase of alternative-fuel vehicles.

Land Use and Open Space

Several bills that would have reduced funding for the state's Program Open Space were defeated. The program helps fund agricultural land preservation as well as state and local government purchases of open spaces and recreational areas. The program is funded by a 0.5 percent realty transfer tax, which is controversial because Maryland's closing costs for home buyers are among the highest in the nation. Several bills that would have reduced the realty transfer tax by cutting Program Open Space money were defeated. Instead, the assembly approved a measure that exempts first-time homebuyers from the tax but makes up the money by eliminating other exemptions.

Administrative Changes

Legislation was approved to reorganize the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources. Under the reorganization, most water-permitting activities, such as tidal and nontidal wetlands regulation, will move from DNR to MDE. At the same time, all watershed planning and tributary strategy activities will be housed in DNR. It is expected the change will streamline permitting, reduce staffing costs and allow for more coordinated decision making.

Regulatory Issues

A measure was approved that requires agencies to submit an economic impact analysis to the Department of Fiscal Service for bills having a potentially significant impact on small business. Several bills were defeated that would have limited the state's regulatory power, including a measure that would have prevented the state from adopting environmental standards that were more strict than those of the federal government.

Legal Standing

A bill was defeated that would have amended the Maryland Environmental Standing Act of 1978 to make it easier for citizens to challenge permits that are issued by the departments of Environment and Natural Resources. Under existing law, strict "standing" criteria restrict permit challenges to citizens who can show that a disputed agency permit, rule or regulation would cause direct harm to their physical person or property that is different from the harm to the general public.

Also defeated was a bill to limit Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or "SLAPP" suits which are used to intimidate people seeking to challenge or comment on government actions affecting businesses. The bill would have protected individuals who, in good faith, bring forth such challenges or comments by allowing them to move to dismiss the SLAPP suit and file a counterclaim.

Wetlands

For the second year, legislation that would allow Maryland to take over federal wetland regulatory authority within the state was defeated. Legislation backed by the Glendening administration would have changed the state program to create greater consistency with federal regulations, which would have positioned Maryland to take assume responsibility for the federal program. State "assumption" of wetlands permitting was intended to streamline the regulatory process by eliminating duplicative efforts of state and federal agencies. But proposed amendments to weaken the bill rallied opposition among the environmental community. Also, some in the regulated community opposed the effort, hoping for a weakening of federal wetlands protection by Congress.

Legislative summaries prepared by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state panel that represents state legislatures, were used in compiling this report. The Associated Press also contributed.