The county council will soon take up an issue that has swirled below the surface of Anne Arundel County politics, has the attention of environmentalists and constitutionalists alike, and will spark debate: Bill No. 2-13, which would impose fees on county residents toward stormwater management projects.
The Anne Arundel County Council will soon take up an issue that has long swirled below the surface of county politics.
It's an issue that has the attention of environmentalists, property owners and constitutionalists alike, and will surely spark debate at a time when people are already watching their pocketbooks.
Bill No. 2-13 is a measure that would impose fees on county residents in an effort to finance new projects to improve storm-water management. The funds would go toward protecting the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways from pollution caused by storm-water runoff, mostly in the form of capital projects.
"It's always a challenge to ask for new fees, especially in the midst of a difficult economy, but we must take reasonable measures to protect the bay, and we do think this is reasonable," said acting County Executive John R. Hammond shortly after taking office late last month.
The bill was introduced last month by councilmen Chris Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat, and Dick Ladd, a Republican from Severna Park, at the request of then-County Executive John R. Leopold. It would impose a fee of $34 per year for townhouses and condominiums, $85 for urban or suburban single-family homes and $170 for homes in rural and agricultural areas.
Nonresidential properties would be charged based on the amount of impervious surface present.
Those impervious surfaces — including parking lots, driveways, sidewalks and roofs — deflect water rather than absorb it, sending unfiltered runoff into drains and pipes rather than through the soil.
A commercial property with 56,000 square feet of impervious surface — about 1.3 acres — would have to pay about $1,700 per year under the measure, for example.
Before leaving office in the wake of a scandal early this month, Leopold had said the fees would generate up to $26.5 million in 2014, the measure's first full fiscal year, and total close to $900 million by 2025.
The funds would support creation of new infrastructure better suited to processing stormwater runoff — such as holding ponds and wetlands where water can be processed through soil — and would also help maintain existing pipes and storm-water systems.
"Some people seem to think the [Chesapeake] Bay is beyond saving. I don't share that view," said Erik Michelson, executive director of the South River Federation. "We need to take drastic action if we're going to have a chance to do what we need to do."
All fees would go into a fund dedicated for storm-water management efforts.
In Anne Arundel, whose 534-mile coastline is the longest of any county in America, the need is acute, Michelson says.
State agencies have found that runoff pours 730,000 pounds of nitrogen alone into local waterways each year, for example, about a third of the total load. Septic seepage and wastewater contributes most of the rest.
Michelson served on a committee that studied county stormwater for six months, developing a proposal for the fee. Other members included representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, environmental organizations, home builders associations and the county administration, as well as advisers from the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland.
The county must impose such fees based on a bill Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law last spring. The law requires that 10 Maryland counties, including Anne Arundel, collect a remediation fee from taxpayers to finance implementation of new storm-water management practices within their jurisdictions.
The bill, which passed the House of Delegates by a 91-45 vote, then the state Senate by a 33-14 vote, stipulates that any county holding a federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit must charge residents a storm-water fee. The permits aim to keep pollution from being discharged into sewers.
The jurisdictions holding those permits include Anne Arundel, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Prince George's and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City.
The law leaves it to each county to determine how to implement the fees, though they must be in place by July 1.
In Anne Arundel, Michelson's panel — which included Ladd and Trumbauer — aimed to come up with fees that would achieve three goals.
First, they would have to allow the county to meet obligations the federal government placed on the county through the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and the more recent Watershed Improvement Plan, an initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency that sets limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that can flow into the bay. Meeting those obligations will cost nearly a billion dollars, Michelson says.
The fee structure would also have to be fair to taxpayers, he said, and be significant enough to effect the desired environmental changes.
The panel began its calculations by assuming the average single-family home has 2,800 square feet of impervious surfaces. That's an industry standard, according to Alan Friedman, county director of government relations.
Nonresidential properties would be charged based on how much impervious surface they have compared to that basic unit.
A business with 56,000 square feet of such surface, for example, has 20 times that of the average suburban home, so its fee would be 20 times that of such a home, for $1,700 per year.
Properties with storm-water management practices in place could qualify for credits of up to 50 percent.
Whatever the calculations, many oppose imposition of new fees during an economic downturn.
Michael Peroutka, the director of the Institute on the Constitution, a Pasadena think tank that supports limited local, state and federal government, questions whether the state has the right to impose such a fee under the Maryland Constitution.
That aside, he said, it's "rubbing salt in the wound" to levy such fees at a time when Marylanders, like Americans everywhere, have long since taken to tightening their belts.
"My exposure to state legislators suggests to me that, believe it or not, it's not even on their radar screens to begin finding ways of cutting spending as the rest of us are doing," Peroutka said. "They seem determined to fill their coffers, whatever the cost."
He described the County Council as "decent, well-meaning men" who nonetheless need to learn that their role, at times, is to resist the state's demands rather than pass them on to taxpayers.
A bipartisan group of County Council members first introduced the idea of a storm-water fee five years ago but failed to draw enough votes to push it forward; Trumbauer and Ladd proposed such a fee in 2011 before withdrawing the idea.
County administrators will brief the council on the bill at a work session at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The public may attend but not testify.
The council will hold its first public hearing on the matter at its next meeting Feb. 19.
Amendments can be added to the bill for 90 days after that. If the council fails to pass it in some form, it would die April 27.