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Measure to delay collection of runoff fees dies in state House

A move to delay controversial new fees to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay failed Monday night, when a Senate-passed measure to postpone the stormwater charges didn't get a vote in the House of Delegates.

Earlier Monday evening, the Maryland Senate voted overwhelmingly, 34-13, for a two-year moratorium on collection of stormwater pollution fees in Baltimore City and seven of the state's largest counties. But in an 11th hour session, the House Environmental Matters Committee did not take up the bill.

Senate proponents of the delay said they had been peppered by complaints from businesses, churches, nonprofit organizations and even some residents, who threatened to move out of state if forced to pay the fees, which for some large property owners were projected to be thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

"We've got to take care of the planet, but people can only do so much at one time," said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Opponents of delay countered that the fees, which the Assembly had voted to require in the final hour of last year's legislative session, were needed for localities to reduce a significant source of bay pollution — chemicals, trash, fertilizer and animal waste washing off buildings, driveways, parking lots and streets into storm drains whenever it rains.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, warned his colleagues that delaying the fees would be like "kicking the can down the street."

Only Montgomery and Howard counties have adopted fees, but most other localities are in the process of setting them. Residential fees would be as little as $18 per year in Baltimore County, ranging up to $170 per year on some homes in Anne Arundel County. Charges on nonresidential properties, however, are potentially much larger, with the highest by far at nearly $3,000 per acre in Baltimore City.

Polluted runoff accounts for roughly one-fifth of the nutrient pollution fouling the bay. State environmental officials figure the state's largest communities need to invest an estimated $2 billion in the next four years on retrofitting storm drains, planting trees and other projects intended to reduce runoff into nearby streams and ultimately the bay.

Property owners would be able to reduce their fees by planting trees, installing rain gardens and doing other things on their land to reduce runoff. But those discounts vary and many have not been finalized.

A bill introduced this year to strengthen the stormwater law wound up as the vehicle for legislative language delaying collection of any fees. Senators had shelved the House-passed version lifting an exemption from fees for state-owned properties, and in response to complaints from churches and nonprofit groups voted to cap their fees at $250 per acre. But late last week, senators jettisoned that limited rollback to opt for a complete delay on all fees.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore City Democrat who first unveiled the delay proposal, said she had been told that one business, which she said had not been identified to her, faced a potential bill approaching $500,000.

She and other delay proponents said that varying fee schedules under consideration in Baltimore City and in the counties were confusing and in some cases, unfair. A two-year timeout, they argued, would give local officials more time to set equitable rates and give everyone ample notice of what they might have to pay.

House sponsors of the stormwater fee bill reacted angrily to the Senate action, alleging that "special interests" had worked in secret with Senate leaders to tack on the delay at the last minute.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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