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Council tackles county's liquid assets in pair of environmental bills

Laws and LegislationLocal GovernmentEnvironmental PollutionElections

Environmental matters dominated the attention of the Anne Arundel County Council this week, as members voted to add restrictions on development in the county's so-called "critical area" near tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay and hosted a spirited public debate on the question of imposing countywide storm-water management fees.

By a 5-2 vote at their Feb. 19 meeting, council members approved the first measure, which supporters said brings the county's critical area code in line with amended state regulations.

But they postponed a vote on the second measure, which would require all property owners to pay annual fees toward storm-water management projects. The council will take it up again on March 4 at the earliest.

Councilman Chris Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat who co-sponsored the storm-water legislation with Republican Councilman Dick Ladd of Severna Park, said the council wanted to "get a sense of everyone's concerns, then come together to offer common-sense amendments to ensure that we get as thoughtful and equitable a final bill as possible."

The voting took place before a nearly full chamber, and more than 40 residents rose to debate the storm-water legislation alone.

Most who spoke about either bill agreed that action must be taken to improve the health of the bay, its tributaries and the county's water in general. Several bemoaned the fact that swimming and fishing in the county's creeks and rivers are often restricted, and many cited the negative impact the waterways' poor health has on both hygiene and the economy.

But disagreements were sharp over how to bring about such action. Environmentalists called both bills "common sense," while property-rights advocates warned against government overreach.

"We're all willing to pay [the new fees]," said Elizabeth Rosborg, president of the nonprofit Arnold Preservation Council, of the stormwater bill. "Certainly, let's look at the fee structure. But this bill is needed."

But Jim Pelura of Davidsonville countered, "I'm not a 'unit.' I'm a property owner and taxpayer, and taxpayers are already carrying enough of a burden."

Critical review

The critical area bill had been discussed at four previous meetings, including one last November when Trumbauer and then-County Executive John R. Leopold introduced it, and two in January during which the council passed dozens of amendments.

Its origin is the state Critical Area Act, passed by the General Assembly in 1984, which restricts development within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay. The measure calls for local jurisdictions to establish their own programs, and requires counties to update regulations every six years.

Anne Arundel, St. Mary's and Queen Anne's counties are currently working on updates.

Written by the county's Planning and Zoning Department, the 60-page Anne Arundel proposal stipulates, among other provisions, that developers must leave space for possible additions to any new buildings. The plan also says homeowners who want to replace structures must use the same footprint of the original, and the county need not notify repeat violators as their infractions accrue.

It also places tighter restrictions for building on slopes and requires property owners to consult with planning and zoning officials before they apply for building permits.

"This way, homeowners will know ahead of time — before they spend money and time on architectural designs and more — whether their plans are in the realm of possibility," said Trumbauer, who called the bill the county's first "comprehensive update" to regulations regarding development in the county's 76 square miles of critical area.

Councilmen Derek Fink, of Pasadena and Jerry Walker of Gambrills, both Republicans, voted against the bill.

The storm-water fee proposal also comes in response to state law. Last May, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law House Bill 987, which required 10 Maryland counties, including Anne Arundel, to collect storm-water remediation fees to help finance the implementation of better storm-water management practices.

Storm water worsens pollution when rainfall runs off impervious surfaces — roads, sidewalks, parking lots and other surfaces that cannot absorb water — and flows straight into pipes and drains, then into the water table, rather than being filtered through the ground.

State agencies have found that this kind of runoff pours 730,000 pounds of nitrogen alone into local waterways every year, more than a third of the total load.

A fluid debate

Experts say Anne Arundel will have to raise nearly $1 billion by 2026 to build infrastructure needed to meet the environmental goals set by the state and federal governments. The law O'Malley signed leaves it up to the counties to determine how they do it, as long as they have their programs in place by July 1.

Last year, the county set up a task force with representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, the county administration, home builders and developers associations and the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland to develop a fair fee structure.

At Tuesday's meeting, Chris Phipps of the Department of Public Works explained how the group arrived at its proposed fee structure, which would charge $34 per year for townhouses or condominiums, $85 for urban or suburban single-family homes and $170 for homes in less-populated areas.

Nonresidential properties would be charged based on the amount of impervious surface present. The task force began, Phipps said, by assuming the average single-family home has 2,800 square feet of impervious surface.

If a business has twice that amount of impervious surface, it would pay twice the fee, or $170. If it had 20 times that quantity, or 56,000 square feet, it would pay $1,700.

County officials said the formula would yield $26.5 million its first full year. All money collected would go into a Watershed Protection and Restoration Fund, most of it to be used for new capital projects or to maintain or upgrade existing facilities.

The bill would grant credits of up to 50 percent to homeowners who have taken measures to protect the environment, or will do so in the future.

Few who spoke opposed outright paying a fee, though several challenged the logic behind the proposed structure. Some said the proposed fees would hit them unduly hard and a number scoffed at the notion that officeholders could refrain from dipping into the fund for other purposes.

"You can't trust Maryland politicians with another tax," said William Strong of Glen Burnie.

Christine Bolewski of Hanover said the fees proposed would place an burden on her small business, PreFlight Airport Parking.

"We would probably have to let employees go," she said. "We're not out to pollute. We do strive for clean water. [But] there's got to be a way that small businesses are not so disproportionately impacted."

And Linda Smith of Glen Burnie said that while the bill as written exempts government buildings from the fees, it confers no such favor on houses of worship.

"Churches are tax-exempt because they benefit the community," she said. "I realize rain falls on churches, but it also falls on government buildings. This sure looks like a tax to me."

Smith said the fees as written would cost her church, Grace Pointe Community Church of the Nazarene in Severn, more than $5,300 per year.

Others were willing to take the hit just as the bill prescribes.

"In this county, most pollution comes from storm-water runoff," said Bob Gallagher of Annapolis, a board member of the Scenic Rivers Land Trust. "The longer [we] wait, the more it's going to cost."

The council has 90 days from the date of the meeting to amend the bill, which would die April 27 if it isn't passed in some form.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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