Just two weeks after Baltimore voters approved setting up a special fund for cleaning up the city's degraded streams and harbor, City Hall has proposed legislation to begin levying a "storm-water remediation fee" next year on all property owners.
Introduced by City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young at the behest of the Rawlings-Blake administration, the bill would require homeowners and businesses to pay a quarterly fee toward municipal efforts to keep trash and pollution from washing off streets, parking lots and buildings into storm drains and streams whenever it rains.
Baltimore city and Maryland's nine largest counties are required to adopt such fees under a state law enacted this year, aimed at helping the long-running campaign to restore the Chesapeake Bay.
The measure would leave it up to the Board of Estimates to decide how much each property owner must pay. But public works officials project asking homeowners to pay from nearly $48 a year to $144 a year, depending on the size of their home, driveway and other paved areas. Most single-family residential properties in the city would have to pay $72 annually, officials predict.
Businesses, offices and apartment or condominium complexes also would be charged based on the size of their buildings and pavement — at a yearly rate of $72 for every 1,000 square feet of ground they cover, according to the city's projections.
Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the Waterfront Partnership, said the nonprofit group, which is campaigning to make the harbor swimmable and fishable, supports the fee, as long as it's fair. But she said the partnership, which includes harborfront businesses, does object to the exemption from the fee that state lawmakers granted all state-owned properties.
City officials have estimated that they need to spend $250 million over the next several years to do their part toward the bay cleanup, with annual costs for stormwater projects peaking at $75 million.
All owners would have a chance to reduce their fees by creating rain gardens, installing "green roofs" or doing other things on their property or elsewhere in the city to reduce polluted runoff. Officials say they also would waive the fee for those too poor to pay, much as they do now with water and sewer bills.
"You can't control the rain, but you can control the impact of the rain running off your property," said Kimberly L. Burgess, chief of surface-water management for the Department of Public Works.
Andrew Galli with Clean Water Action said that while environmentalists support giving owners the opportunity to reduce their fees, he's concerned that the city may be too lax by considering credits for things that don't actually reduce pollution, such as educating the public about stormwater runoff.
"We want to make the harbor fishable and swimmable," Galli said. "If we start to deplete the fund by giving out credits for educational programs and other things that aren't actually in the ground ... I don't think we're going to be able to get there."
Burgess said city officials are still discussing with various "stakeholders" what credits would be given to reduce the fees. Under state law, the city must adopt its fee by July 1.