On Tuesday, Ellicott City’s Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church became the first nonprofit organization in Howard County to sign an agreement to install stormwater management improvements on its property in exchange for a waiver of the county's new stormwater fee, which is being collected for the first time this December.
County Executive Ken Ulman visited the church for the signing and a tour of the areas slated for stormwater mitigation improvements.
“It’s an important day,” Ulman said. “We’re talking about how to work together with the nonprofit and faith communities to clean up our watershed.”
In exchange for building three bioretention areas on its property, Bethel Korean Presbyterian will have its stormwater retention fee, which would have cost the church $7,155 annually, waived.
A team of environmental consultants designed the bioretention areas after visiting the property and working with church leaders to determine the best strategy for improving stormwater management on their land.
Construction funds will come from a county grant to the church, paid for out of revenue from the stormwater fee, a controversial new utility that critics have derided as a “rain tax.”
Officials said the grant to Bethel would be somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000.
Ulman said the project at Bethel was an example of environmental improvement enabled by the stormwater fee.
“We in Howard County have been making progress,” he said. “Now that we have this utility, we’ll be able to make more.”
The executive said the nonprofit waiver plan, called the Watershed Protection Partnership Program, was the result of discussion about how to implement the state-mandated stormwater fee in the fairest way possible, with attention also paid to yielding the greatest results.
“We don’t particularly want the money, we want the improvement,” Ulman said.
Bethel Pastor William Jin said the fee would have been a hardship for the church.
“Churches are deep in spiritual resources, but not necessarily financial resources,” he said.
But, he added, “the congregation wants to be good neighbors and we want Howard County to be the best place to live… We want to do our share.”
The waiver program was passed by the County Council in July, after hearing concerns from local nonprofit leaders that the fee would be a burden to their organizations.
In October, Ulman announced details for the program. Ninety nonprofits sent back a statement of intent to participate in the waiver program by the Oct. 31 deadline. Collectively, more than 125 nonprofit-owned properties in the county stand to be improved under the program.
At Bethel, about 1.35 acres of unmitigated impervious surface will be improved, according to county stormwater manager Jim Caldwell.
The church’s location at the headwaters of the Hudson and Tiber Rivers made it a prime target for county stormwater remediation efforts.
Ulman said the bioretention areas’ trapping and filtering of rainwater would have the added benefit of helping to prevent flooding downstream of the church in historic Ellicott City.
“Ellicott City has had quite a few adventures with Mother Nature,” he said. This project “will protect our neighbors” in the historic district.
Caldwell said the county’s game plan going forward was to start with the largest nonprofit-owned properties that have indicated interest in participating in the waiver program and get the ball rolling on stormwater mitigation projects there to begin to chip away at the 2,300 acres of untreated impervious surface the county must improve upon over the next five years, per state requirements. “What we want to do is find the most bang for the buck,” he said.
He called the Bethel property “a goldmine.” In addition to the 1.35 acres of improvements made to the lot under the waiver program, the church will be making additional improvements as part of an upcoming expansion, which stands to double the square footage of the 2,000-member church.
Construction on the expansion project is slated to begin early next year.
As Ulman surveyed the church property in the rain Tuesday morning, he looked down at a puddle in the parking lot and grazed it with the tip of his shoe, disrupting faint swirls of oil among the rainwater.
"Now picture that running into the stream,” he said. “We’re stewards of the Chesapeake Bay. We take that seriously.”