Laurel Lakes

The so-called rain tax was mandated to help clean up local waterways, such as Laurel Lakes, by controlling runoff containing pollutants, which flows into the waterways from paved surfaces during storms. (Staff photo by Brian Krista / October 16, 2012)

The long-awaited proposed details on how Prince George's County officials plan to implement the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, better known as the rain tax, were released by Department of Environmental Resources officials on Monday.

No one is predicting that the unpopular rain tax fees, which will be calculated differently for businesses and residents if approved, will be in effect by the July 1 deadline.

The rain tax was mandated by federal and state officials as a way to help clean up local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Funds collected from the rain tax will be used to make infrastructure improvements statewide to better filter out the pollutants that end up in storm water runoff after it rains, and that eventually end up in the Chesapeake Bay.

Much of the runoff, which contains oil, trash, chemicals, metals and other pollutants, flows into the waterways from roof tops, garages, parking lots, roadways and other paved surfaces during storms. The pollutants have resulted in high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen, which decrease oxygen, in waterways such as the Bay and Laurel Lakes.

Prince George's and eight other of the state's largest counties and Baltimore City were required to come up with plans to improve stormwater management to decrease nitrogen and phosphorous by nearly 20 percent statewide.

Prince George's County officials calculate their required improvements will cost $1.2 billion with $8 million needed in the first year the fees go into effect.

According to Adam Ortiz, the county's Department of Environmental Resources acting director, upgrades will have to be made on 8,000 acres of land around impervious surfaces in the county to better control stormwater runoff.

In legislation that will be introduced Tuesday before the County Council, a flat rate of $372 per acre of impervious surface is proposed, with a fee-tier system for residential properties charged according to a home's square footage.

If the council approves the proposed fee structure, owners of small lots (up to 1,480 square feet) with impervious surfaces could pay about $33; medium-sized (2,470 square feet) could pay approximately $41 and owners of large residential lots (4,900 square feet) could pay about $62. The fees would be rolled into homeowners' annual property taxes.

"I don't expect anyone to be happy with the new fee, but we have done all we can to keep the fees as low as possible," Ortiz said.

Although Laurel homeowner Beverly Hunt is not a fan of higher taxes, she has mixed feelings about the rain tax.

"Times are still hard in this current economic climate, but I do support environmental causes and this is a noble one; if they do what they are supposed to do with the funds, it will be well worth it," Hunt said. "I don't know if it is possible, but before charging residents these fees, I'd have liked to see them use some of the red light and speed camera fees they collect to offset some of the costs of improving our waters."

Business owners uphappy with fees

Fees for businesses are calculated by acreage, which could range from a small convenience store paying $124 to a 7.5-acre shopping center paying nearly $3,000 annually.

"If a business for instance, has two acres with half being grass and trees and the other acre being the building and a parking lot, with sidewalks, they would pay $372, plus the $20 administrative fee," Ortiz said.

Many business owners in the county and Laurel are not happy about the proposed fees.

"I don't like it," said Craig Frederick, whose family owns Fred Frederick Chrysler on Route 1. "I wish it was a bad dream that would go away."

The Frederick dealership has large impervious surfaces that include paved lots for their inventory and for customers at the dealership's repair shop.

"Maryland is out of control and not business friendly. They keep raising taxes and it's not reasonable. Look at the gas tax when gas is more than $3.65 a gallon. I don't know what they were thinking about," Frederick said. "Why don't they use some of the gambling windfall to pay for these things?"

Del. Ben Barnes, who represents Laurel in the Maryland General Assembly, said he makes no apologies for the rain tax. He said the stormwater management improvements will improve the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways and that the proposed plan is a reasonable way to charge those who create the runoff. He said it's also good for the state's economy.