Howard Council to focus on stormwater fee in March

Those who follow the Howard County Council can expect discussion of a proposed stormwater fee to take up much of the council's time over the next month. But that doesn't mean council members will be prepared to vote on the proposal by the end of March.

"I can guarantee you we're not going to rush it," Council member Courtney Watson said. "If it takes until May, it takes until May."

The council voted unanimously March 4 to table proposed legislation to create a stormwater fee. The next time they can vote on the matter is March 28.

With a light agenda this month, the stormwater fee legislation is expected to be the focus.

But by delaying action on the bill again at the March 28 legislative session, the council could create a busy few months for themselves. The county executive's fiscal 2014 budget is expected in April followed by the comprehensive rezoning process.

Council member Calvin Ball said the council needs to further research the credit program involved with the fee, while ensuring that property owners are charged an appropriate amount given the county's requirements to meet federal and state regulations.

Ball said he didn't know if the council would be ready to approve the fee by its next legislative session.

"I think it's important to address all of these issues and we need to work collaboratively to address them as efficiently as possible," he said.

The state's Watershed Protection and Restoration Program signed into law last year requires counties to collect fees to pay for stormwater management as well as stream and wetland restoration projects. The projects are aimed at improving water quality and reducing phosphorous and nitrogen entering the Chesapeake Bay.

All property owners, except state and local governments and volunteer fire companies, will be required to pay the fee, which will be a separate item on property tax bills starting in 2014.

Despite predominantly positive testimony from the public on the county's proposed stormwater fee, council members have said they would like more time to ensure it is fairly implemented.

Watson said she also is interested in making sure the county minimizes the administrative cost in implementing the fee.

"We're really just at the beginning of this discussion," she said.

Council member Greg Fox said he has multiple concerns with the proposed stormwater fee structure, including if the county is meeting requirements of the state law and if the fee is being implemented as efficiently as possible.

He said he was "unsure" if the council would be ready to vote by the end of this month.

Regarding agriculture preservation legislation approved March 4, Fox said an amendment he proposed could come back to the council this month.

At the March 4 council legislative session, Fox proposed an amendment to an agriculture preservation bill that would have established a similar development rights purchasing program that was requested for the Department of Planning and Zoning.

The department had asked the council to establish a purchasing system that would create a revolving funding source for the agriculture preservation program by allowing the county to sell purchased development rights.

But the council unanimously approved an amendment eliminating that option.

While the council was unwilling to act on Fox's amendment, proposed during the legislative session, Fox said after he believes the purchasing program proposal will "come back in some form," submitted either by himself or by the administration.

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