Howard Council collecting information before stormwater vote

A majority of Howard County residents last week spoke in favor of the county administration's plan to implement a state-mandated fee next year to pay for stormwater-related projects.

County Council members, however, say they still need to be convinced it is the best way to go.

"We need to be sure the way we move forward is most efficient for county taxpayers," Council member Courtney Watson said. The council is scheduled to vote on the bill Monday, March 4.

The Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, signed into law last year, requires larger counties in the state to collect fees to pay for stormwater management as well as stream and wetland restoration projects. The projects are aimed at improving water quality and reducing phosphorous and nitrogen levels entering the Chesapeake Bay.

All property owners — except state and local governments and volunteer fire companies — will be required to pay the fee, which will be a separate line item on their property tax bill starting in 2014.

A bill before the County Council is proposing that for every 500 square feet of impervious surface, property owners will be charged $7.80. Homes built after 2002 will pay a lower fee because they use the latest stormwater standards.

Impervious surfaces include paved driveways and rooftops. The county's Geographic Information Services will determine the building footprint and paved surface for each home and business.

For example, the owner of a moderately sized home (roughly 2,640 square feet) built before 2002 can expect to pay $39 a year, while the owner of a home built after 2002 would pay $31.

Owners of larger homes with long driveways can expect to pay $195 if their home was built before 2002 and $101 if it was built after 2002.

The fee is expected to "significantly" increase during the next five years, according to county stormwater manager Jim Caldwell, but the county can't predict how high.

Council member Calvin Ball said it is important to demonstrate a commitment to the environment, but he wants to be sure the county does it in a "fair yet meaningful way" in terms of the fee amount and credits offered to residents.

"I'm supportive of the watershed plan and supportive of the fee, but I want to make sure we're all clear on the details and doing it right," Ball said.

At a public hearing last week, Michael Harrison, Vice President of Government Affairs of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, suggested the county implement a higher fee in the first year.

Harrison said other counties are proposing fees nearly "twice as much" as Howard is proposing, and an increased fee would allow the county to "get started right away" on improvement projects.

Caldwell said the county is being conservative in its first year because projects won't start for about two years. He said it takes that long to design projects, hire contractors and inform property owners what the county is doing.

The county estimates the fee will generate $7 million in 2014, according to Caldwell.

Some residents from western Howard County testified last week that the new fee could have a devastating impact on farmers because of structures on their property and long driveways.

Under the county's proposal, a property with an agricultural use assessment and soil conservation plan will only be charged based on residential structures on their property.

Council member Greg Fox, the council's lone Republican who represents western Howard County, said he shares the concerns of his constituents and isn't ready to commit to the administration's proposal.

"For me, I want to do my homework, be responsible and then I'll be able to have more of an opinion on it," he said.

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