Harford County Executive David Craig fiercely defended his opposition to the state's stormwater remediation fee Monday night, pointing out that government property would be exempt from what has become known as the rain tax.
The rain tax, which Craig said last week he will work to repeal at both county and state levels, was just one of several controversial topics discussed at an Abingdon Community Council meeting Monday evening that nearly filled the Abingdon Library's main meeting room.
Also discussed was the stalled status of the proposed Center for the Arts and the Harford County Council's plan to bring back legislation blocking the construction of future "big box" retail stores unless the council approves them.
The rain tax discussion was prompted by Morita Bruce, a Fallston resident and land use activist, who said she is "a little concerned" about the lack of discussion on what she said is a pending water shortage and pointed out sediment pollution can impact drinking water sources.
Bruce said Atkisson Reservoir, for example, once provided 11 million gallons of water daily to Aberdeen Proving Ground, which she said is more than double the amount the county can get out of its Perryman well system today. The latter is the county's secondary water source after the Susquehanna River/Baltimore City aqueduct, which is called the Big Inch.
Today the reservoir on Winters Run, built to serve the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground during World War II, provides no drinking water, which Bruce said is a result of sediment build-up from runoff upstream.
"To me, that's the justification for charging a stormwater management fee," she said. "What we are doing is correcting our past mistakes. The roads that every one of us probably came here on are contributing to the problem."
"Harford County needs enough clean water," Bruce said. "We are going to be running out."
Craig, a Republican who is running for governor, replied the area's biggest polluter is probably the proving ground itself.
He mentioned the proving ground's history of dumping hazardous materials in the Chesapeake Bay and long string of environmentally damaging acts. The entire federal installation along the bay is a federal Superfund site and has been the focus of an ongoing a clean-up in its third decade.
"APG should fix Atkisson dam because it's their sediment," Craig argued, adding the county's water supply is based on the needs of its own customers. "We do have plenty of water right now."
He also said the Susquehanna River basin is in Pennsylvania and New York, as well as in Maryland, but those states do not have to do any remediation on pollution caused by stormwater runoff from development and agriculture. Bruce replied that is not true.
Craig has regularly said that he wants the federal and state governments to clean up their own house on pollution, and he reminded those at the Abingdon meeting that government properties are exempt from paying any locally imposed stormwater remediation fee.
Arts center in limbo
Craig also said the Center for the Arts, which had been planned for the Abingdon area, is stalled.
He said the center director has left, so the organization is looking for a new director and a new consultant to develop plans and fundraising strategies.
"It hasn't really moved forward very much," Craig said of the project, which previously has had his backing.
Craig had agreed to allow the center to be built on a section of parkland the county is expected to acquire from the estate of a wealthy former county resident, under a complicated deal worked out by the two sides nearly two years ago.
The project, with an estimated cost of $60 million, is expected to be built with a combination of county funds, private donations and public and private grants. County participation, however, is contingent on the arts center's backers raising a significant amount of money from non-county sources.
Board of trustees member Toby Musser said Sallee Kunkel Filkins stepped down several months ago as permanent executive director but continues to serve in a contractual role.
Musser said the center is looking for a new executive director with expertise in fundraising and hopes to hire that person within the next month.
He also said the center is still moving forward, with a study under way to determine the money the board needs to raise in its fundraising campaign.
Musser pointed out that the executor for estate that owns the land where the center would be built said if there is no significant progress on construction of the center by 2018, the land would revert back and could end up being developed.
New anti-'big box' bill
County Councilman Dion Guthrie, who also attended Monday's community council meeting, said the council hopes to introduce another bill limiting "big box" stores in the Emmorton – Bel Air South area.
With the proposed Plumtree Road-area Walmart still a hot topic of discussion, both at the community council meeting and in other forums, Guthrie recalled a previous similar bill that drew attention but went nowhere.
In May, the council put forward a bill that would have required greater scrutiny of plans for commercial buildings larger than 75,000 square feet, including giving the council ultimate oversight of such projects.
The bill died. Guthrie said Monday the bill was widely misunderstood because some of the sponsors all but admitted it was an effort to block construction of a Walmart at Route 924 and Plumtree Road.
"The reason nobody acted on that bill is because that bill had nothing to do with Walmart and everyone thought it did," Guthrie said, explaining that bills cannot be retroactive and the earlier bill would have only applied to future developments.
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He said Councilman Jim McMahan, who represents the Bel Air South area, plans to introduce a new anti-'big box' bill soon.