Proposed Harford stormwater fee could approach $400 per home

Not surprisingly, the 31 people who attended Tuesday's public briefing about a new stormwater fee made their displeasure clear to Harford County officials who hosted the session.

"We elect you guys to represent us, not to do the bidding of [Gov.] Martin O'Malley's green agenda," Abingdon resident Vicki Seitzinger told Ben Lloyd, deputy chief of staff for Harford County Executive David R. Craig, during the session at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air.

Under a law passed last year by the Maryland General Assembly, many property owners throughout the state – including those in Harford County – will be required to pay a stormwater fee beginning in the second half of 2013 in order to fund local stormwater management projects designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay and other Maryland waterways.

An exact fee must still be set by the Harford County Council, but county officials estimate it could be as high as $400 a year per home if a flat fee is applied, according to a handout the county provided at the meeting.

Counties and municipalities can also set the fee based on the amount of a property's impervious surface, or other method, according to the law.

Harford officials estimate the county must raise $70 million to $90 million by 2017 to comply with federal requirements to treat 20 percent of local impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, to prevent runoff of pollutants during rainstorms, according to the handout.

The county must also comply with the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan to cut down the amount of nutrient pollution carried to the Bay via stormwater.

The proposed county fee would take effect July 1, and be applied to residential, commercial and agricultural properties outside the municipal limits of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace.

Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace have different stormwater permits, which the state law does not apply to, county representatives said.

The law requires Maryland counties that hold a federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES permit, designed to prevent pollution from being discharged into a local Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, to charge the stormwater fee.

The money raised would fund local stormwater management projects.

"They're unhappy about the fee, and rightly so," Harford Public Works Director Tim Whittie said of those who attended Tuesday's forum. "It's an added cost they're going to have on their tax bills."

Whittie said the projects funded could include stream restoration, retrofits of stormwater retention ponds and Best Management Practice improvements along roadways to filter runoff.

Officials with the county DPW have been working with a number of "stakeholders," including residents, business representatives and technical experts, according to the county's handout, and have developed recommendations for structuring the fee.

DPW recommends charging a flat fee for residential properties, except apartment complexes. The fee could be $357 a year if the county seeks to raise $30 million a year to fully fund stormwater projects, or $125 a year to raise $10.5 million in a "best effort," according to the handout.

Commercial properties – including apartment blocks – would pay based on the size of impervious surfaces. The commercial fee would be 4 cents per square foot to help raise $30 million, or 1.4 cents to raise $10.5 million.

Agricultural properties would pay the residential rate.

Property owners can lessen their fees if they take measures to control stormwater. Owners of homes and commercial properties built during the past 10 years could receive credits if their properties have up-to-date stormwater management systems.

"We're going to take the comments that we've heard and convey to them to the county executive," Lloyd said in explaining the next step following Tuesday's meeting.

House Bill 987 was passed by both houses of the Maryland General Assembly last spring, by a more than 2-1 majority in the House of Delegates and Senate. O'Malley signed the bill into law that May.

The bill was passed overwhelmingly despite efforts by county leaders and members of Harford's legislative delegation to fight it.

Craig wrote a commentary, published last September in The Gazette community newspapers in suburban Washington, expressing his opposition to the law.

"I share their zeal for a healthy Bay," Craig wrote of the environmentalists, scientists and government officials working to keep nutrient and sediment runoff out of the Chesapeake. "On some level, we all do. But in these trying economic times, our love for the Bay and our desire to improve its health must be tempered by considering what we can afford when Marylanders face high unemployment, lower incomes and tighter household budgets."

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