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News Opinion Editorial

Rainy days in Balto. Co.

There's a certain irony that only days after several Baltimore County beaches had to be closed as unsafe, some Baltimore County businesses and politicians were complaining about a tax on stormwater runoff. After all, it wasn't the presence of a great white shark that closed the county beaches but rain that swept bacteria and other pollution into the water.

Nobody likes to pay more in taxes, and it isn't too surprising that the "rain tax" complaints were revived last week when people opened up property tax bills that include the new tax. But it is a little disappointing that those so quick to criticize the tax fail to recognize its necessity — unless, of course, they have another way to pay for $25 million in remediation projects each year.

But we will give critics some credit. No doubt there are business owners who are getting overcharged because the county's method for judging how much they should pay — scrutinizing aerial photographs to measure impervious surfaces — is imprecise. From the air, porous blacktop probably looks a lot like the kind that doesn't allow water to filter through, and rain gardens look like, well, gardens.

That's why the county gives property owners the right to appeal the tax — first to the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability and then, if necessary, to an administrative hearing officer. If the county has overstated the amount of impervious surface on a property, whether it's a building or a private road, that should be corrected.

The truth is the way Baltimore County has approached the problem of stormwater pollution — and the state requirement to create a fee to cover its cost — has been pretty sensible. Homeowners face a flat fee of $21 (for a town house) to $39 (for a single family dwelling), and considering that property tax assessments have been stagnant (with some actually in decline in recent years), it's probably not even noticeable.

Businesses pay more, but they are also likely to have parking lots or other drainage issues that account for more of the problem. For them, the charge is $69 per 2,000 square feet of impervious surface or $20 per 2,000 square feet if they are a non-profit. A typical downtown Towson business might face a bill of $400-to-$500 per year.

Some people may ask, what if the county had thumbed its nose at the law like officials in Carroll County did and approved no tax? Well, the county then would have no way to meet federal water quality standards. Eventually, a court would be forced to intervene, and who knows what remediation might be required. The next fee might be a great deal higher — or perhaps the county would have to shortchange schools or public safety, slap a moratorium on further development or take other actions far worse than a fee.

Most important, the longer Baltimore County allows pollution into its rivers, streams, lakes and other waterways, the more damage that results. Water pollution comes from a variety of sources, but stormwater runoff is one of the most concerning because the problem is getting progressively worse, not better. Surely, people living in a county with 232 miles of shoreline can appreciate the need to better protect the Chesapeake Bay.

The big mistake was allowing development of all forms — from roads to schools to shopping centers and apartment buildings — without requiring better management of runoff so that it would slowly filter into the ground rather than swiftly pour into drainage ditches and creeks. We are paying for the cost of decades of poor stewardship.

Make no mistake, this problem is not unique to Maryland. Other communities are adopting similar taxes. Business should be happy that — just as the flush tax has been dedicated to improving sewage treatment — the "rain tax" can only be spent on stormwater improvements. County officials expect to break ground on the first of these projects by early next year.

Those who sneer at this remedy need to be asked: What would you do about the problem? Mocking the tax doesn't clean up a polluted creek, river or beach.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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