Bay Journal

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Maryland’s Stormwater Storm

How the counties are handling their new mandate, and what the General Assembly is going to do next.

  • January 17, 2014
Detention pond overflows with sediment-laden runoff. New regulations would help reduce these occurrences. (Leslie Middleton)

For clean-water advocates, local government leaders and those with higher political aspirations, one environmental issue seems to be trumping all others as this legislative season begins. And that issue is stormwater.

Maryland and Virginia both recently passed stormwater rules. In both states, local governments are pushing back, either asking for delays in implementing the rules or asking for the laws to be repealed or weakened. In both states, the stormwater phenomenon has become a real political issue because of new fees imposed on property owners. Stormwater fee opponents call the legislation a classic government overreach; its supporters say it begins to pay a bill come due that has been long ignored.

“From my perspective, it’s time to turn our attention to the only source of pollution that is still increasing in Virginia -- stormwater,” said Peggy Sanner, senior attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Virginia.

Virginia’s efforts to tackle polluted runoff from stormwater began a decade ago. New regulations were to be in place July 1, 2014, but legislators submitted several bills to the legislature that would delay or change these requirements.

There’s a lot to it, and you can read about it here.

Meanwhile, Maryland clean-water advocates got some good news yesterday. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch said they would not let stormwater legislation come up for a vote in their chambers. That could have happened, as several legislators considered proposing bills to exempt their counties, cap fees or otherwise weaken the bill. Miller previously had suggested he wanted to make the laws more uniform and less of a burden to local jurisdictions.

Maryland passed its stormwater bill in 2012. Its legislation required the nine largest counties and Baltimore City to set up stormwater utilities by July of 2013. Prince George’s County, Howard County and Montgomery County managed to do the job with little trouble, and Montgomery County already had such a fee and a utility in place. But everywhere else, there was a kerfuffle over the fees.

Religious institutions complained in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. In Harford County, County Executive David Craig, who is running for governor as a Republican, has discussed repealing his county’s fee. Carroll County elected not to assess a fee, and Frederick County opted to charge its residents just one penny.

The fees have ranged from about $40 a year in some counties to more than $200 in others, depending on the size of a property.

The fee quickly caused anger and confusion. Many people thought they were going to be taxed when it rained, according to several people involved in focus groups on the fee. Even in counties where the councils elected to pass a fee, several politicians sought to weaken it or carve out exceptions.

In Anne Arundel County, nonprofits pay $1 - even when their neighbors having the same type of pipes and discharging to the same steam pay $85 in single-family properties.

Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman said the local governments’ complaints is not mere bellyaching. It’s real - these public servants have cut their operations to the bone, and it’s difficult to ask people who are struggling to pay more. But Tutman has another worry: that the fee will become an excuse not to do more.

People who paid the fee may not be inclined to put in rain barrels or choose better site design for projects. And, because the bill has not been paid for decades, the fees governments assessed are too low to accomplish the job at hand.

During Bay Journal's recent WYPR radio show, Midday on the Bay, several people called to say exactly that. They were looking at voluntarily making an investment of $10,000-$15,000 in their property to control stormwater. And they said the fee annoyed them - not because they could not afford it, but because they doubted it could do as much as their investment would. One reader posted on Bay Journal's Facebook page that the Baltimore city code forbids an improvement that would reduce her stormwater significantly.

Blue Water Baltimore CEO Halle Van Der Gaag said on the show that the customization was only fair, because Baltimore city is 45 percent impervious and Prince George’s County is only 7 percent. Nevertheless, there seemed to be more complaints in the city, and more cuts to the original program, than there were in Prince George's. The Washington suburb got to the job a little later than most, but out of the gate it had a clear explanation of the fees and plenty of ways a property owner could reduce them with best practices.

Meanwhile, Tutman said, poor stormwater controls continue at developments. Maryland, progressive though its inhabitants think it may be, is not an exception.

“We have counties with a billion-dollar backlog. We have to stop creating bad stormwater problems,” Tutman said. “If we don’t, people will keep build lousy stormwater stuff because there’s a budget to fix it later.”

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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