A public hearing on a proposed stormwater remediation fee turned into a hearing largely for Harford County Council members Tuesday night.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti and Councilman Dion Guthrie, both Democrats who have opposing views on the state-mandated legislation, brought their own presentations to defend their stances.
The bill, which was not voted on Tuesday, would establish a flat fee of $125, much lower than the $400 fee originally proposed, for all residential and agricultural properties except apartments.
This legislation would also impose a fee of $7 per 500 square feet of impervious area for all commercial and industrial properties and apartment buildings, mobile home parks, maritime facilities and property owned by fraternal organizations, religious institutions or health care facilities.
Public works director Tim Whittie explained it would have less of an impact on agricultural properties because the fee would be applied only to the home, not the farmland.
People would also be allowed to appeal the fee or get credit for other forms of environmental restoration, such as rain gardens.
The cost to treat stormwater is between $20,000 and $40,000 per acre, and the county would need to spend a total of $90 million to address the state mandate, Whittie said.
He said 72,000 residential properties will be affected. A hardship exemption will also be available. Residents would be charged the fee as part of their annual or biannual tax bill.
Lisanti, who has been executive director of the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway, played two videos on environmental stewardship in Lancaster, Pa., and Havre de Grace, showing the importance of protecting the Chesapeake Bay and the measures being taken to do so.
She said a lot of information in newspapers and online that has been exchanged is perpetuating inaccuracy, explaining the need to address the Chesapeake Bay's total maximum daily loads came to light because the federal Environmental Protection Agency "failed to do its job."
She said the EPA recognized that local jurisdictions are better at knowing their local watershed areas.
"It is important to put this money in a lockbox and not use it for purposes that aren't stated," Lisanti added about the revenue from the bill.
Guthrie, meanwhile, said all jurisdictions should pay the same amount toward the fee and rebuffed Lisanti's efforts to rebuff him.
He said it is "mind boggling" the different fees paid by those in the state.
"If we're all in this together, we should all pay the same amount together," he said.
Councilmen Joe Woods and Chad Shrodes, both Republicans, said they also hope to find ways to either not pass the bill or lower the fee.
Council President Billy Boniface asked Whittie if there is a way to push off its implementation, which Whittie strongly opposed, saying not starting it July 1 would cause the county to spend more money.
"The longer we delay, the more expensive things get," Whittie said. "We have a five-year time frame to meet the requirements."
Boniface asked why the county has five years.
"Nothing in this legislation speaks to that," he said. "That's a regulation by [the Maryland Department of the Environment] but there's nothing in the bill that lets them do that."
He added: "I think everyone is concerned about the Bay, but I think it's accountability of where this money goes to. A considerable amount of money is projected to go toward our operating budget."
Whittie agreed, noting it is $1.5 million.
Woods said the commercial properties in his district, such as Fallston Mall and Aumar Village, would generate more than $500,000 of tax income alone, which leads him to think the fee is too high.
Treasurer Kathryn Hewitt said a special revenue fund will be set up to hold the special stormwater management fee, similar to Lisanti's mention of a "lockbox."
Boniface said House Bill 987 is "very clear" that the intent is not to put the revenue toward other purposes.
Whittie disagreed, saying: "We believe, and it's our interpretation of the bill, that we can use that money that we collect to pay for operating only for that department that is associated with stormwater management."
Several residents also spoke in opposition to the bill while others, such as members of the Dublin-Darlington Community Council, supported it.
Dan O'Neill, from Lakeside Drive in Fountain Green, said he was representing Monsignor James Barker of St. Ignatius Church of Hickory and other leaders of the parish, who e-mailed the council a letter.
"We would prefer that you exempt us and like organizations from the stormwater restoration fee," he said.
O'Neill said if the church could not be exempted, he asked that Harford follow the precedent set by Anne Arundel County of capping all property owned by religious institutions at the residential rate.
Bob Tibbs, of Havre de Grace, said he is as "aggravated and frustrated" as he has ever been, calling it one of the most "exasperating" bills he has ever heard of.
"It is unfair because it targets rural Harford County, with very little impervious surface," he said. "I have never been a Tea Party member but I am beginning to feel like [a resident during the Boston Tea Party]."
"Why not write the exemptions into the bill?" he asked. "This bill is badly written and is unfair."
Meanwhile, a representative of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the group supported the bill.
Rich Norling, of the Deer Creek Watershed Association and the Dublin-Darlington Community Council, said the watershed group voted to support the bill with certain amendments.
He said the areas "downstream with large impervious surfaces" are the ones that always flood and he thinks the bill could help address flooding issues.
He recommended regulations to allow certain property owners to avoid the whole fee instead of just getting 50 percent off, as proposed.
Vicki Seitzinger, of Abingdon, was another speaker who encouraged the council to rebuff the state.
"It's time for us to stand up against some of these unreasonable environmental regulations," she said. "When people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is freedom."
Bike safety plan
A hearing on the proposed 2013 bicycle and pedestrian master plan drew a couple of comments from council members.
Councilman Chad Shrodes said he hopes the plan would make traffic conditions safer in the county.
"It does feel we can really go far with this, especially with pedestrian safety," he said. "It seems like in our state, in our area, drivers don't respect pedestrians in the road area."
"It would be nice if our motorists would respect people walking in the street," Shrodes added. "I know a few folks personally who have been struck just walking in Bel Air and I don't think that is right."
Resident John Mallamo said he is concerned that the plan is just that – a plan that has not been funded yet.
He noted a state bike route runs on Route 22 "from Bull on the Beach to Wawa," jokingly explaining it is not exactly useful to have a bike route only 500 feet long.