About 50 representatives of Harford County businesses and industries, along with county, municipal and state appointed and elected officials, crowded into a meeting room at the HEAT Center in Aberdeen Wednesday to learn more about the so-called "rain tax."
The Harford County Office of Economic Development and the Economic Development Advisory Board hosted the seminar on the state-mandated stormwater management fee, which its detractors, including Harford County Executive David Craig, have dubbed the "rain tax."
"It's the regulatory equivalent of an unfunded mandate," EDAB Chairman Eric McLauchlin told the audience.
The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation in 2012 requiring the state's nine largest counties and Baltimore City to implement a fee to raise funds for projects to help clean stormwater before it enters the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries.
"The fact that it is on the local level means that we as business people, we as community members, can help shape the conversation," Baltimore attorney M. Trent Zivkovich, one of four speakers to address the seminar crowd Wednesday, said.
McLauchlin, Paul Thompson, chairman of EDAB's Land Use subcommittee, and county Public Works Director Tim Whittie also spoke.
Zivkovich, who was invited to give background on the stormwater fee, is a member of the Whiteford Taylor Preston law firm, and is working with the business community, counties and environmental advocates in Maryland regarding the rain tax.
"[We want] to try to move past the hyperbole and stick to the facts, so to speak, to serve as kind of an information clearinghouse," he told The Aegis after the seminar.
Zivkovich told the audience Maryland's stormwater fee came about as the state worked to comply with the Chesapeake Bay TMDL [Total Maximum Daily Load] established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2010.
Under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, also known as a "pollution diet," the six states in the Bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed, plus Washington, D.C., must reduce nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment levels by 25 percent, 24 percent and 20 percent, respectively, according to an EPA fact sheet.
"Despite extensive restoration efforts during the past 25 years, the TMDL was prompted by insufficient progress and continued poor water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries," agency officials stated in the fact sheet.
The "pollution control measures" devised by local governments must all be in place by 2025, and a goal of 60 percent completion has been set for 2017.
The Maryland counties affected by the new fee include Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's.
"How are you, in your unique circumstances, going to meet the TMDL diet?" Zivkovich asked.
Municipalities, other than Baltimore, have been exempt so far.
Thompson is concerned that municipalities are exempt, although municipal officials in Harford have brought up the matter in meetings, urging city and town leaders to be ready for the fee to hit them in the coming years.
Thompson took issue with how county property owners are the only ones responsible for the stormwater fee.
"It's just doesn't seem like we're all sharing the burden," he said.
Maryland's stormwater fee law allows properties owned by the state, county or municipal governments, or volunteer fire companies, to be exempt, according to Zivkovich's presentation.
The manner in which the fee is charged to agricultural, commercial, industrial and residential taxpayers has varied with each jurisdiction.
A $125 flat fee is being charged to Harford's residential and agricultural property owners, along with nonprofits, and commercial and industrial owners must pay $7 per 500 square feet of impervious surface on their properties, such as roofs and parking lots.
County leaders reduced the payments to 10 percent, to $12.50 for homeowners and 70 cents per 500 square feet for business and industry, for the first year, and a task force has been established to study how to implement the fees and apply the revenues going forward.
Property owners can obtain credits for projects they take on to mitigate their stormwater impacts.
Economic Development Director Jim Richardson said some industrial and business clientele who are interested in Harford County have facilities which take up to 1 million to half a million square feet.
Whittie talked about the committee's efforts, and how the county is struggling to meet a requirement of its state-issued Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System Discharge Permit, or MS4, to treat 20 percent of the county's impervious surface.
Counties must have the MS4 permits, which regulate discharge from county-run wastewater treatment facilities and stormwater systems.
Whittie said county officials have sent a "strongly-worded" letter to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
"It's draconian," he said of the 20 percent requirement. "We just don't feel we're going to be able to meet it."
Audience member Dan Schneckenburger, of the Wilmington, Del., mechanical contracting firm N. Barton & Associates Inc., resides in Maryland and is also on the board of directors of the Susquehanna Workforce Network, which promotes workforce development in Harford and Cecil counties.
He said businesses in the area have been reluctant to hire new employees because of the unknown cost of meeting the rain tax, but he said there are opportunities in helping companies take measures to mitigate their impact.
He noted the fee is ultimately about keeping the water clean.
"What can we do to actually make a difference?" he said.