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Editorial: Stormwater fee measure continues to spring leaks

The devil is in the details, goes the old saw, and there's nothing more bedeviling to the state of Maryland with details at present than the stormwater management fee, also called by some "the rain tax." We are now in the third year of acrimony and confusion over this measure, which the General Assembly, under a mandate by the federal government, adopted in 2012 to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The latest eruption of discontent is a lawsuit filed by a Montgomery County property owner claiming that county's application of the law treats him unfairly because he is being charged $11,000 for runoff control on his Gaithersburg property even though he has built ponds to manage runoff. A judge has agreed with the property owner, saying he should get a pass if he is dealing with the problem himself.

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That decision was undoubtedly noticed in all of the nine counties and Baltimore City where the fee applies. Officials in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties said they are reviewing the Montgomery ruling to see how it impacts their fee. No doubt lawyers looking to represent aggrieved property owners in those counties are doing the same thing.

Everyone professes to want a cleaner bay, scientists agree that runoff is a key pollutant and there is no argument a solution lies in curbing the amount of animal waste, fertilizer and dirt washed into the bay by the rain. And, everyone acknowledges, this will be painful to the pocketbook and the pain should be shared.

But this fee caused an uproar from the outset. Gov. Larry Hogan and other Republicans campaigned on a pledge to repeal the fee. Then, some of the jurisdictions refused to raise the new revenue by hitting individuals with fees and, instead, opted to pay the county's obligation in a lump sum, such as Carroll County. Initially, government leaders here pushed back at the "rain tax" requirements and, in 2014, the Maryland Department of the Environment exempted the county from levying a tax as long as Carroll continued to appropriate money into a Watershed Protection and Restoration Fund.

Then last year, legislators in Annapolis, looking to tamp down the brushfire, dropped the requirement that counties directly charge property owners, leaving the option of other means of raising the money.

Now, here comes trouble from another direction. And, chances are this won't be the final crack in this complicated revenue-raising edifice constructed by politicians. It's clear by now that the General Assembly — whether because of neglect, arrogance, haste or some combination of these — came up with a high maintenance piece of legislation that will continue to spring leaks.

In some ways, it sort of validates the pushback local elected officials had toward the initial legislation.

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