Stormwater Runoff

Bill Breakey, a member of Maryland Presbyterian Church's Environmental Stewardship Action Group, shows one of the rain barrels outside the building. This is one of the ways the church has been active in helping to reduce stormwater runoff. (Photo by Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / February 5, 2014)

Once, when heavy rain hit the roof of the Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, there was so much runoff that it would wash away the wood chips and soil that cover the children's play area.

Today, the church on Providence Road uses rain barrels and a rain garden to help filter the water — and reduce the polluted runoff that eventually makes its way to the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland Presbyterian is one of many religious and nonprofit groups in Maryland that are trying to address that pollution, an effort that has grown more urgent now that they must pay the state's new stormwater management fee. The church's fee — dubbed "the rain tax" by critics — comes to about $1,000 a year.

Bill Breakey, a member of the Maryland Presbyterian's environmental stewardship action group, called the fee "a slight burden, but … a burden worth bearing, we think."

The church built its stormwater management features before the fees took effect. But for many congregations, pollution became pressing with the enactment of the fees last year.

Local governments have devised programs to aid churches, and grants are available help faith-based organizations manage their stormwater by installing filtration systems and planting rain gardens.

"Most nonprofits, certainly most churches, are dealing with declining revenue and rising expenses," said the Rev. Mary Gaut, pastor of Maryland Presbyterian. "I think a lot of churches are not aware of these funding sources."

Most counties calculate the state-mandated fee owed by an institution at least in part by measuring the amount of impervious surface on its property. Many religious congregations and some charity groups have been hit especially hard because they have large parking lots.

"With the stormwater fees landing squarely on the back door of the faith community, it has become a very highlighted issue that congregations want to understand," said Jodi Rose, executive director of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, which recently organized a resource fair to educate religious organizations about polluted runoff.

"They want to be able to pay their fees, but they also are struggling with their own budgets."

A state law passed in 2012 requires Baltimore and Maryland's nine other largest jurisdictions to collect the fee from property owners every year. Each local government was left to devise its own fee structure.

In Baltimore County, officials recently announced a $3 million fund to help nonprofits remove impervious surfaces from their properties.

"We get a reduction in our pollutant load, and the nonprofit gets a reduction in their stormwater fee," said Vince Gardina, director of the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability.

Prince George's County launched an incentive program to encourage nonprofits to reduce runoff.

Prince George's reduces fees for nonprofits that let the county build rain gardens or that start a "green team or ministry" that educates members on environmental issues and coordinates tree planting and trash pick-ups.

Organizations that take these steps can end up with virtually no fee, said Adam C. Ortiz, the county's director of the Department of Environmental Resources.

Nonprofit and religious organizations in Howard County can get fee waivers if they agree to install stormwater management features.

The environmental group Blue Water Baltimore is offering grants to help places of worship set up rain gardens, redirect downspouts and remove asphalt.

Still, the fees remains a major concern for many congregations. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore said many parishes don't have the funds needed to invest in the design, engineering and construction of mitigation systems.

"We have not seen anything specific where there isn't a very substantial up-front investment to save little money," spokesman Sean Caine said in a statement. "Our city parishes and schools cannot afford that."

Caine said churches want to help the environment and that Catholic teaching "clearly states that we all have a duty to care for God's gift of creation." Parishes plan to employ rain barrels and redirect downspouts.

"Unfortunately, while these efforts help to reduce polluted runoff, they do not do much to decrease the high fees being charged by the city," Caine said. "This will force the many parishes and schools operating on shoestring budgets to make tough fiscal decisions regarding things like staffing and the programs and services they offer, many of which benefit those in the wider community."

alisonk@baltsun.com

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