Howard helps church curb runoff, fees

Officials walk across Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church parking lot after seeing where Howard County will pay to build swales and rain gardens to capture some rainfall runoff. (Jen Rynda / November 26, 2013)

A Baltimore area local government and an environmental group are offering financial help to churches and other nonprofits facing stiff fees for the polluted runoff their properties generate.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman was to sign a storm-water "partnership agreement" Tuesday morning with Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church. Under it, the county will give the Ellicott City religious institution a $145,000 grant to install three "bioretention" areas to capture rainfall running off its parking lots.

Meanwhile, the environmental group Blue Water Baltimore is offering grants to 84 religious organizations in the city and Baltimore County to help them reduce runoff from their properties. Participating faith-based property owners will be able to earn credits in the city and county to reduce the fees they have to pay.

The two initiatives are addressing one of the thornier issues in the controversy over Maryland's new storm-water management fees, which state lawmakers have required in the 10 largest jurisdictions to help pay for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Though the sprawling parking lots and buildings of churches and other nonprofits can generate a lot of runoff, religious and nonprofit leaders have objected to paying on the same basis as homeowners or commercial property owners, arguing that their charitable or at least tax-exempt status merits special consideration. Politicians have been sympathetic, and fees have been reduced without conditions in some jurisdictions -- to just $1 in Anne Arundel County.

In Howard, religious institutions and nonprofits can get their fees completely waived if they agree to let the county assess what needs to be done to control runoff on their property, and then carry out the county's recommendations.

Bethel is the first church to formally strike such a deal with the county, but officials say nonprofit owners of more than 120 properties have agreed as well.

More than half of the church's 10 acres are covered by buildings and pavement.  The "bioretention areas" -- grassy swales and rain gardens -- have been scoped out by the Center for Watershed Protection, a think tank based in Ellicott City that advises local governments and others on how to clean up and safeguard their water ways.  By putting them in and doing other things on the property to reduce storm-water, the church will be able to reduce its $7,155 annual fee to zero, according to a county spokesman.

Howard's efforts to help nonprofits are funded through the fees homeowners and commercial property owners pay. 

Blue Water Baltimore's outreach is underwritten through a $250,000 grant from the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Besides providing financial help to religious organizations in the city and Baltimore County, the grant will also fund an educational effort through Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake to educate congregations about the impacts of polluted runoff and how greening properties can reduce it. The effort could be significant, as the eligible religious organizations collectively own more than 6,000 acres of land in the area, according to Blue Water Baltimore.