While others found much to criticize about this year's General Assembly, environmental activists hailed it Tuesday as the most significant in decades for advancing long-running efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay.
In a year when lawmakers balked at raising taxes or fees for other purposes, they approved the doubling of a "flush fee" for fixing up Maryland's sewage treatment plants and ordered the state's largest communities to levy fees on their property owners to fix polluted runoff from city and suburban streets and parking lots.
Legislators also finally approved long-debated curbs on growth using septic tanks, which officials have warned for years could undermine bay cleanup efforts if not curtailed.
Though each measure wound up being compromised, some more drastically than others, together they represent major gains, bay advocates say, and demonstrate the Chesapeake's enduring popularity among Marylanders.
"I don't think we can understate how important this legislative session will be for the future of the bay," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Baker, who's led the Annapolis-based environmental group for 30 years, said he thinks this year's package of bills ranks second only to those pushed through by Gov. Harry R. Hughes in 1984 launching the bay restoration effort in earnest. That year, lawmakers approved major spending on pollution cleanup and enacted the Critical Area law limiting waterfront development.
"Usually, you get one bill through that is ambitious," Baker said. "To get three, even if the septic growth bill was not as good as it could be, is extremely rare."
None of the bills passed as originally proposed, including the "flush fee" hike and septic curbs, which were priorities of Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Lawmakers agreed to raise the "flush fee" from $2.50 to $5 per month for virtually all households, but waived the increase for residents in western Garrett County, where rivers and sewage flow into the Ohio River.
O'Malley proposed weaker curbs on septic-based development this year than he had in 2011, only to see legislators weaken them further by stripping out state authority to approve or reject their growth plans. Even so, Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall predicted the measure should keep 50,000 new homes from being built on more polluting individual waste treatment systems, preventing more than 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen from getting into the bay over the next 23 years, and spare 150,000 acres of forest and farmland from development.
What began as a proposed statewide requirement for storm-water fees also got whittled down to apply only in Baltimore city and the state's nine largest counties — Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Prince George's and Montgomery. Critics complained that it was a stealth tax that ultimately could cost $6 billion or more under a controversial bay "pollution diet" imposed by the federal government. But proponents noted the bill as passed left it to local officials to decide how much or little to charge their residents and businesses.
"We were concerned because each of the bills was changed, reduced and not as strong in the end," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland and another veteran environmental campaigner. "That was of great concern to us, but when I think we all woke up this morning and were able to look at the final results, we couldn't be more thrilled."
Other environmental legislation did not fare as well, including O'Malley's second try at incentives for building industrial-scale wind turbines off Ocean City and a proposed statewide fee on plastic store bags. But less heralded bay-related bills passed, including a first-in-the-nation ban on using arsenic in chicken feed and a bill offering incentives to burn poultry manure for energy, aimed at diverting some animal waste from being spread on farm fields as fertilizer and potentially washing off to pollute the bay.