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Local work group pushes county for financial incentives to tackle stormwater runoff

Local businesses, many of whom have long decried stormwater fees as unfair and asymmetric, are pushing the county to craft financial incentives to motivate commercial property owners to manage stormwater runoff in the county.

The county needs to manage stormwater runoff to meet a state mandate that requires jurisdictions to treat around 2,000 acres of impervious surfaces — like parking lots, rooftops and streets — that push polluted runoff into the area's waters by 2019.

The county has treated around 150 acres so far, but like other jurisdictions in the state, is charting uncertain waters.

Most of the projects, nearly 70 percent, are on private property where owners grant limited access and have little to no reason to set aside valuable land for stormwater management.

"Businesses don't have any reason to do it other than their conscience," said Mark Southerland, chairman of the group recommending changes.

Without the cooperation of local property owners, the county would violate the state mandate, passed through federal law, which could result in substantial financial penalties of up to $25,000 per day as long as the violation exists, according to the county's permitting documents.

"If we did everything we could possible do on the land the county own, we would still the need private sector's help. We really haven't figured out a way to work them," said Jim Caldwell, director of the county's Office of Community Sustainability.

A group representing the commercial sector created through executive order by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, whose attempt to abolish stormwater fees failed earlier this year, wants the county to develop and fund a structured program to meet state and federal requirements. Councilman Jon Weinstein also pushed for the establishment of the group.

Polluted runoff is a major source of pollution in the county, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The group recommended incentives like reducing or eliminating stormwater fees, waive parking space requirements and placing the financial burden of projects on the county.

But waiving stormwater fees is not enough to cover the cost of stormwater projects, Caldwell said.

When the county explored a pilot project along a two-acre parcel on Route 1, the county discovered it would take a 162-payback to recover the costs of the project.

The county is considering a partnership with the private sector by awarding a contract to a firm that commits to treating the most impervious acreage on a list of commercial properties owners offer.

Cole Schnorf, a member of the group and senior vice president and director of development at Manekin, said his commercial real estate company has a 50-acre parcel of land in Jessup, once an old Giant Food warehouse, that could be a candidate for the program.

"Nobody has really approached us about doing this before. It is new for all of us," Schnorf said. "We need to identify a few pilot projects to set an example of how this can work to other commercial property owners."

In 2013, the county launched a similar program with around 120 nonprofit organizations. Two contractors, Stormwater Maintenance and Consulting and Ecotone, are managing 35 acres for $2 million from county funds, including the stormwater fee.

Caldwell said that program could model a similar partnership with the private sector.

Abby Glassberg, as associate at KLNB, a commercial real estate broker, praised the county for bringing the commercial sector into the dialogue early in the process.

Other jurisdictions are also struggling to meet the state mandate, which is known as an MS4 permit mandated through the Clean Water Act, county officials said.

Montgomery County, which began working on the issue before other jurisdictions, failed to meet its obligations this year and is negotiating future steps with the state's Department of Environment, said the department's spokesman Jay Apperson.

Apperson declined to comment further on the negotiations, which are in progress.

Caldwell said state regulators must realize the challenge before local jurisdictions, who are competing to meet goals of individual projects that can cost around $200,000.

"Between the cost of it and the competition between other counties, you run out of contractors, you run out of steel, the cost gets higher," Caldwell said. "What we're basically saying is that we want to get there, but the challenge is overwhelmingly difficult."

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