A program that kicked off this fall with a group of officials and church leaders smiling broadly as they plunged symbolic golden shovels into the soil did not begin with such good spirits.

It began last winter with a roomful of pastors from churches in Maryland’s Prince George’s County saying, “No, thank you,” to a fee-oriented program that they considered a new tax on nonprofits.

“It was basically a very tense and public argument,” said Adam Ortiz, director of the county’s Department of the Environment, who thought he was being proactive by arranging the meeting.

Ortiz’s department, like others across the state, had to develop a plan to improve the way the county filters and manages polluted stormwater before it flows into local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. And they had to find a way to fund it.

A 2012 law required Maryland’s nine largest counties and the city of Baltimore to establish a stormwater fee to pay for the improvements. Churches with large parking lots, despite their status as nonprofits which typically exempts them from certain taxes, would be responsible for dealing with or paying for their stormwater runoff as well.

“I felt like it was a tax that was being assessed to churches,” said the Rev. Diane Johnson, of Jerusalem AME Church in Clinton, of her first reaction to the fee. “I know that we’re all going to have to do our part if we’re going to overcome the damages being caused by poor stewardship of the resources of this Earth. The question is how to do it.”

After that first meeting, Ortiz had to ask himself that question again.

He and a faith leader stayed after the meeting to talk and, after eight months of negotiating and planning, launched a re-imagined version of the program that made participation “more palatable” for local organizations, Johnson said.

Instead of simply assessing a fee for the amount of impervious surface a church owns (its parking lot and roof, for example), nonprofits in the county can now enroll in an Alternative Compliance Program that allows them to reduce their fee in exchange for reducing their footprint.

Through the program, the churches can enlist the manpower of their congregations — and the know-how of the county — to build rain gardens, bioswales or other measures that filter out pollutants and slow the water running off their parking lots before it reaches nearby streams.

“Our top goal is to retrofit acres, not collect money,” said Ortiz. “These goals are too big for the government to achieve alone.”

Through the program, churches can take several steps to reduce their annual stormwater fees from $372 per impervious acre to almost nothing, although everyone still will pay a $20 administrative fee.

The nonprofits receive a 50 percent reduction if they donate the use of a portion of their property to the county to install a rain garden or other filtration device. The county provides what is typically additional landscaping, and the church is then responsible for maintaining it.

Churches also can create educational programs or green ministries that encourage the congregation, and especially youth, to build rain barrels or learn about their impact on the environment. These programs result in an additional 25 percent off the fee.

The remainder of the impact fee can be waived if the church practices “green housekeeping” by reducing fertilizer use and keeping parking lots free of trash that might wash into waterways.

The county has joined with organizations like Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake to coach churches on how to implement these programs, and county staff also communicates with the nonprofits to ensure long-term compliance.

The Interfaith Partners also runs a program called Riverwise Congregations throughout the watershed that encourages houses of worship to consider stormwater reduction techniques.

In Prince George’s County, Ortiz said he’s hoping word will spread among the churches as leaders encourage one another to participate.

In October, the county hosted a kick-off event for the program at one of the first churches to participate, Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church in Forestville.

“This is God’s property,” said the Rev. Nathaniel B. Thomas, the pastor at New Redeemer, “and we must do what we can to not only be a good church, but a good neighbor and good steward.”

The county will spend $100,000 installing rain barrels, permeable pavers and bioretention facilities at the church by spring. In exchange, the church will pay reduced fees for agreeing to implement and maintain the measures.

The six projects implemented at the church will display the best management practices that other churches could consider implementing — and other counties in the state, for that matter.

Jon Capacasa, director of the EPA Water Protection Division in the mid-Atlantic Region, attended the Forestville event and said that programs like this “will put us in a much better position in restoring and protecting water quality for the future.”

Other local leaders have applauded the program as an example that could be applied to other regions or other sectors of the community.

“Prince George’s County is making it easy for religious institutions to engage in alternative compliance, helping places of worship to protect and restore nearby streams,” said Andrew Fellows, mayor of College Park.

Ortiz said the county is processing 30 applications from churches and faith-based organizations interested in participating. That’s out of “several hundred” that could be eligible.

To achieve its stormwater goals, the county has to retrofit 8,000 acres by 2019, or about 2,000 acres per year. It’s easier and more cost-effective to retrofit large parking lots than roads or sidewalks with existing utilities and traffic.

Ortiz said the county wants to “incentivize as many partners as possible.” Its Rain Check Rebate Program reaches out to residents and offers rebates for implementing green infrastructure that helps absorb stormwater.

But finding a partner in the faith community was a big step.

Johnson said she’s glad the county went out of its way to woo her community to stormwater compliance.

“I want to do this,” she said. “I think it will help my congregation because they’ll see what we did at the church and they can go do it at their homes.”