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Prince George's releases rain tax plans

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.

"Maryland's economy relies on the health of the Bay," Barnes said. "Cleaning up the Bay can only be good for the economy, so I don't think this will have an adverse effect on the local economy."

Offset fees

Ortiz also pointed out that the legislation they came up with provides ways for residents and business owners to receive credits, rebates and grants to offset the rain tax fees. Additionally, low-income residents who qualify for homeowner tax credits and energy assistance can apply for an exemption.

Property owners who have environmentally friendly features on their land, such as rain gardens, cisterns, rain barrels or green roofs, or remove pavement from their lots entirely, can qualify for reductions in their assessed rain tax fees.

"New developments have strong restrictions, so if they meet our requirements of treating all of the property, you can get a 100 percent credit," Ortiz said. "People and nonprofits can get grant assistance to install these things."

Frederick said they have a sediment pond at the dealership to handle some runoff, but because of the new fees, they are considering other things they can do to offset the tax.

"I've been looking into setting up rainwater barrels to capture the water. I'd use it to water the bushes around here," Frederick said.

If the rain tax legislation is passed, Ortiz said the first phase of the infrastructure improvements, which would begin in the fall, would be upgrading 2,000 acres in the county.

"We'll be focusing on areas like College Park, Greenbelt and Mt. Rainier," he said. "Laurel is an area where we will do some projects, but the main focus in the first phase for retrofitting will be inside the Beltway. … We want to give a facelift to older communities that are asphalt-heavy."

DER officials predict the stormwater infrastructure retrofitting will generate 5,000 jobs in the county during the life of the project, which is expected to be completed by 2025.

DER Deputy Director Larry Kaufman says they are also seeking partnership with private companies to create long-term jobs around the stormwater regulations.

"We're establishing goals the private sector has to achieve and we'll partner with them to use their innovation to drive costs down," Kaufman said. "We've advertised for public-private partnerships and expect that process will be completed by the fall and construction will begin this year."

As for the looming July 1 deadline, most county officials interviewed are not expecting it to be met, nor do DER officials. Ortiz said he realizes they are one of the last counties in the state to come up with a rain tax plan, but said they've learned from what others have done in developing a program for Prince George's residents.

"If we miss the deadline by a little bit, we'll still make it work," Ortiz said.

Kaufman added, "We're not concerned that EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) or the state will crack down on us if we miss the deadline by a week or two. We're making a good faith effort and have a plan, so, I don't' think we'll be penalized."

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