Harford County Executive David R. Craig, a leading Republican candidate for governor, called Tuesday for a sweeping rollback of Maryland's environmental laws, saying measures passed by the state's leaders have failed to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
"They say they're aggressive in cleaning it, but they're saying they haven't cleaned it up. So are they being disingenuous about that? Did it actually work? Did it?" he said. "If it did, then why are they saying it's still getting polluted?"
Craig held a news conference in Abingdon to announce that he will push to repeal Harford's stormwater fee, to which he agreed in May. He said he would introduce legislation in the County Council Oct. 1 to eliminate the local charge, which has been derided by opponents as a "rain tax."
But in an interview after, Craig went far beyond his call to end the county's compliance with the Maryland law requiring Harford and nine other jurisdictions to adopt fees to cover the cost of reducing runoff from storm water.
He called for repeal of the state law, then went on to suggest that Maryland should back off from a range of measures adopted in recent decades to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. His proposals include elimination of the 1984 Critical Area Act, a measure regarded by environmentalists as a crown jewel of the state's bay protection laws.
"Why don't you get rid of all the previous bills?" Craig said. "Let's get rid of the Critical Areas Act."
In addition to the critical area law, which restricts development on parcels within 1,000 yards of the bay and its tributaries, Craig said he would like to eliminate a 2007 law requiring developments to avoid any increase in stormwater runoff and abolish a 1998 law requiring farmers to limit the runoff of fertilizer and animal waste.
The Harford executive's environmental stance puts him well to the right of the state's last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., at a time when Craig faces a contested primary in an increasingly conservative GOP.
Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, expressed dismay at Craig's positions.
"I haven't heard an elected official recommend such a wholesale reversal of strategies that are working in the last 30 years," Baker said.
A Republican lawmaker who has helped to administer the critical area law said she was surprised at Craig's opposition. "David's always been a good steward," said Del. Cathleen M. Vitale of Anne Arundel County, who served on the state's Critical Area Commission.
Vitale said that while the law should be rewritten to reflect changes in best practices since it was adopted, it has had a positive effect on the environment. "I'd use the word revise," she said.
Craig's move to repeal Harford's stormwater fee comes four months after he reluctantly signed off on a schedule of fees to limit the flow of stormwater pollution into the bay. The Carroll County commissioners refused to adopt a fee, and Frederick County officials approved a nominal 1-cent charge.
The statute adopted by the council with Craig's consent set the fee for the first year at $12.50 for homeowners. Under the law, businesses would pay based how much of their property is paved or developed.
"I complied," Craig said Tuesday. "Complied is different than support."
The repeal would put Harford in defiance of the 2012 law requiring metropolitan counties to adopt fees to pay for improvements to control stormwater runoff and reduce flooding. Scientists estimate that runoff from impervious surfaces such as parking lots contributes about 20 percent of the nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
Craig announced the proposed repeal at a business he said would be severely impacted by the fee because of its large area of paved surface, Boyle Buick GMC Truck in Abingdon. He chose the location to underscore his contention that the fees put an unfair burden on businesses that have large parking lots or other impervious surfaces.
The 5-acre dealership faces a stormwater fee of $293 this year and an eventual charge of $2,953 if the plan were fully implemented, according to the county.
Craig questioned the science behind the decision to base the fees for businesses on the size of their parking lots, buildings and other hardened surfaces that don't absorb rain.
"The impervious surface really doesn't matter," said. "The rain is going to get through somewhere, somehow."
While Harford adopted what Craig described as a provisional fee structure earlier this year, the executive said he now wants to rescind that action because "none of our questions have been adequately answered" by state or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials.
Craig — who previously said the state needed to obey the law even though he opposed it — said he now believes the O'Malley administration is in no position to carry out threatened penalties for noncompliance with the fee mandate.
"I would say, take us to court," he said, predicting that such a case would take five to six years to resolve. He said he would pay for existing stormwater projects out of the county budget at about the existing level rather than use the fees to ramp up activity as called for under the current county plan.
The prospect of a lawsuit is not far-fetched. Samantha Kappalman, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the agency is reviewing each affected jurisdiction's actions and will refer noncompliant counties to the attorney general's office for possible legal action.
One of Craig's opponents for the GOP nomination for governor welcomed his shift even as he took a backhanded swipe at his previous compliance with the state law. Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County called Craig's shift a "smart political move" but faulted his earlier stance.
"I think it would have hurt him tremendously if he didn't do it," George said. "It would scare people if you're going to be governor and you didn't make the right choice the first time."
State Republicans have derided the storm water fee as a "rain tax" and made it a rallying cry in the 2014 election.
Todd Eberly, a professor of political science at St. Mary's College, said the Republicans may be on a productive course.
"If there is going to be a sleeper issue in 2014, that's going to be it," he said.
William Dennison, a University of Maryland scientist who oversees an annual report card on the Chesapeake Bay's health, took issue with critics' characterization of the fee as a rain tax.
"It's not that the rain is doing the damage. It can rain all it wants if you have a nice forested watershed," he said. The problem lies in the fertilizer, pet waste and other pollution left on lawns and pavement that's picked up by the rain and washed into nearby streams.
"It's not about the water, it's about what the water carries," he said. "It's the dirty water tax, not the rain tax."
While Eberly said Craig could benefit from the rain tax issue by getting out in front of it early in the primary race, he expressed skepticism that a proposal to broadly scale back the state's environmental protections would help him in the general election.
"If he's going down that road, he's going to have a hard time getting to 50 percent," Eberly said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun