As money begins flowing into Anne Arundel County government from its new stormwater fees, Erik Michelsen says he wants to make sure it's spent on projects to reduce pollution harming the Chesapeake Bay.
County Executive Laura Neuman recently tapped Michelsen, a local environmentalist, to run the county's stormwater management program, which is expected to spend tens of millions of dollars each year.
Michelsen moves to the new position from the nonprofit South River Federation in Edgewater, where he's been executive director for the past five years.
He said he's looking forward to taking the county's existing program — which already executes a few remediation projects each year — and ramping it up with a new influx of money.
"You're really talking about a game-changer in terms of implementation," Michelsen said.
Starting last year, Anne Arundel County began collecting stormwater fees from all property owners. A residential fee is being phased in that amounts to $34, $85 or $170 per year, depending on the type of property, with large, rural properties paying the most and condominiums and townhouses paying the least.
Commercial property owners pay based on square footage of impervious surfaces such as rooftops and parking lots. Nonprofit groups pay $1 per year.
Anne Arundel, along with nine other jurisdictions, is required to collect a stormwater fee under a state law passed in 2012. The law left the amount of the fee to local governments to decide. Last spring, Neuman vetoed fees that were approved by the County Council. Council members overrode her veto but subsequently made changes to reduce the fees in some cases.
The stormwater fees continue to be controversial — some legislators in Annapolis have targeted the program for revisions during the current General Assembly session, though House and Senate leaders have said the program won't be gutted. And this week, Del. Steve Schuh, who is Neuman's opponent in the Republican primary for county executive, proposed offsetting the fee with a property tax cut.
Neuman acknowledged she's not a fan of the fees, but said she wants to make sure the money is spent effectively so it does, in fact, lead to pollution reductions.
She said she chose Michelsen for the job because he's shown he can work well with environmentalists, private homeowners, businesses and government officials.
"He brings that balance of caring about the environment and the needs of the business community," Neuman said. "For me, it was about finding both in a candidate."
Michelsen, who campaigned to establish the stormwater fees, said he wasn't deterred by Neuman's veto of the fees last year.
"She intends to build the best program she can," he said.
Sitting in his Edgewater office overlooking the South River, Michelsen said he's excited to be a part of a major effort to stem stormwater pollution, which carries sediments and nutrients into creeks, rivers and the bay. He starts his new job later this month.
At the South River Federation, he's helped carry out private stormwater projects and has worked with the county on some of its remediation efforts, which include restoring stream beds, creating wetlands and turning concrete outfalls and pipes into functioning streams that filter and slow runoff.
Michelsen said he plans to build on the programs Anne Arundel County already has in place. He said a lot of legwork already has been done in identifying problem sites and developing options to fix them.
"In Anne Arundel County, we're in a great position because the county has invested money on the planning side. … We've lacked the dollars for implementation," he said. "Now the dollars are there to do the work."
Stormwater runoff is one of the key sources of pollution harming Anne Arundel's creeks and rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. Other sources include septic systems and sewage plants, which are being upgraded.
When it rains, the water washes over paved surfaces and into local waterways, carrying with it dirt, nutrients and chemicals. The fast-moving water causes erosion in streams and alters the landscape.
Remediation efforts are required for the county to comply with a federal stormwater permit it holds, as well as to meet its bay cleanup obligations under the federal "pollution diet," Michelsen said. He said the county has a $1 billion backlog of needed stormwater pollution projects.
And while Michelsen is excited to take on that billion-dollar challenge, he has mixed feelings about leaving the South River Federation.
Michelsen said the federation has had some successes while he has worked there, including having Riverkeeper Diana Muller's water quality data used by the federal government for official purposes — a big deal for a small nonprofit group. The federation also has focused on completing more on-the-ground projects — including stormwater projects — to help the river.
Leaving is "bittersweet," Michelsen said, but "I feel it's the right time to move on."