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Appealing stormwater fees could be easier in Arundel

As Anne Arundel County officials begin spending money from new stormwater fees on environmental projects, they're hoping to make it easier for property owners to appeal the fees.

Since the fees were billed for the first time last summer, more than 300 property owners have appealed. More than one-third of appellants missed the Aug. 15 appeal deadline, but the Department of Public Works is reviewing their appeals anyway.

Chris Phipps, the county's director of public works, is seeking approval of a bill before the County Council that would legally allow this year's late appeals to be considered. He's also requesting a bill to change the appeal deadline to Sept. 30 in future years.

Both bills will be considered by the council in May.

With tax bills mailed out in July, property owners might not have been able to prepare their appeals by the Aug. 15 deadline, Phipps said.

"We quite frankly found it just wasn't enough time," Phipps told members of the council at a work session on Tuesday.

About 170,000 property owners were billed for stormwater fees — dubbed the "rain tax" by opponents — on their property tax bills for the first time last summer.

An annual fee of $34 to $170 is being phased in for residential homeowners. Commercial property owners pay a fee based on how much impervious surface they have on their property, such as parking lots, driveways and rooftops.

So far, 305 appeals have been filed, with 182 of them coming before the deadline and 123 filed after.

A total of 168 appeals have been granted, and 29 are under review.

The money from the stormwater fees, $13.2 million in the first year, is going to a variety of projects aimed at reducing pollution that flows from streams and creeks into the Chesapeake Bay, said Erik Michelsen, the new director of the stormwater program.

Anne Arundel County is on the hook to reduce pollution as part of the multistate Chesapeake Bay "pollution diet." The county also must follow a federal pollution permit that requires 20 percent of the county's untreated impervious surfaces — 5,000 acres — to be treated for stormwater runoff over the next five years, Michelsen told council members.

Over the last decade, the county has spent $5.8 million on examining the county's creeks and rivers to identify problem areas and how to solve them, Michelsen said.

The projects generally fall into three areas: turning old stormwater-holding ponds into wetlands, fixing pipes that dump stormwater into streams, and restoring damaged streams.

All three projects slow the flow of stormwater runoff, allowing pollutants such as sediments and harmful nutrients to be reduced naturally before the water ends up in rivers and the bay.

The pond projects are the cheapest and easiest to do, Michelsen said.

"We own much of the property. There aren't property acquisition issues, generally speaking. The permit issues are very small," Michelsen said. "We can get in and do this work."

Stream restorations are more expensive because they take longer to plan and are more complicated, Michelsen said.

The planned stormwater projects will involve the hiring of private contractors. The county held a meeting Tuesday to share information about future projects with potential contractors.

The projects are laid out in the county's long-term budget for capital projects and will be summarized in an annual report. They'll also be subject to review by the county's auditor.

"County residents should know there's an extreme level of accountability," said Councilman Chris Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat.

pwood@baltsun.com

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