Creek funds hinge on vote

The Baltimore Sun

As the Anne Arundel County Council weighs competing proposals tomorrow over how to pay for restoring damaged waterways, an unusual coalition of environmentalists, homebuilders and other businesses is standing behind a plan to impose fees on most property owners. The success of the plan could hinge on a single vote.

Three council members announced last week - after several weeks of delays - that they would unveil an amendment to overhaul County Executive John R. Leopold's so-called SMART fund that potentially could generate $10 million in annual revenue.

The amendment by Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican, and Democrats Josh Cohen and Jamie Benoit would impose a flat fee of $30 on most homeowners and a sliding-scale charge on owners of most commercial and industrial property.

That differs from Leopold's plan, which would impose a fee based on the creation of most new impervious surfaces, such as patios, homes and parking lots.

All improved commercial and industrial properties would be charged $30 for every 2,500 square feet of impervious surface under the councilmen's amendment. For example, a 1-acre paved parking lot would translate into $540 a year.

Cohen said the fee on most small business owners would not exceed $200 a year.

The amendment also would waive the fee for families making $35,000 or less a year, and it would not apply to Annapolis, where a city storm-water utility is already in place.

The trio of council members described the plan as "fair and equitable" and said the broad support by business groups and environmentalists spoke to its merits.

"Everyone wants to save the bay, to restore our creeks and rivers," Cohen said. "But the devil is in the details."

Environmentalists, homebuilders and others said they are rallying behind the bipartisan amendment for several reasons: It would raise more money to tackle the $1.3 billion backlog in projects to repair waterways and restore watersheds, and it acknowledges "a shared responsibility" in seeking a remedy.

"We are all in it together," said Eliot Powell, president of the county's Homebuilders Association. "Based on the environmentalists I have talked to, we are quite pleased they are squarely behind it, just as they are pleased that we are behind it."

Drew Koslow, the South River Keeper, agreed.

"We hope we will end up with something that really makes a difference," Koslow said.

Dillon, Benoit and Cohen first offered their amendment on Oct. 15 to charge flat fees of $25 on most homeowners and $100 on business owners. But they withdrew it after they could not show how much money it would raise.

After county and state officials determined the next day that the trio's initial proposal would raise $4.5 million annually - compared with the SMART fund's $5.4 million - Leopold criticized the councilmen's plan.

Critics of Leopold's Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries fund said it would place an undue burden on developers, who already must adhere to the county's regulations to curb storm-water runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

While county officials said the average charge on a commercial development would be in the range of $16,000, business leaders estimate the typical charge would be closer to $30,000. Under Leopold's proposal, an average fee of $1,400 would be applied on new homes.

Leopold called the SMART fund "the most practical solution at this time." He agreed that the responsibilities for restoring waterways "should be broadly shared."

He said, however, that because the county budget includes about $11 million annually to address runoff and dredging projects, an added burden should not be placed on taxpayers unless they are adding impervious surfaces.

Placing fees on the impervious surface of commercial properties, as the trio's amendment calls for, would be a "recondite exercise" that would be "somewhat complicated and difficult to calculate," Leopold said.

Both initiatives face long odds of passing, as some council members have labeled them tax increases.

Republican C. Edward Middlebrooks has been the most vocal in his opposition. While acknowledging the severity of the problem, he has said the county should try to remedy the problem within the existing budget.

Environmentalists said the clogged and polluted local waterways are killing fish and making people sick. While lauding Leopold's initiative, some say more must be done to reverse the pollution cycle caused by runoff.

"We have a billion-dollar backlog of damaged creeks and rivers today," Cohen said. "Unfortunately, we won't be able to make meaningful progress unless there's a new pool of money that we can use to attack the problem."

Environmentalists petitioned during last year's elections to impose a $60 fee on homeowners, but even some supportive politicians said that figure was too high. The call for a utility fund gained traction on the council after Dillon, a Pasadena Republican, said last month that he favored a flat fee.

Despite the broad support of businesses and activists, Dillon said that finding a fourth "yes" on the council has proven "elusive."

"I think right now, ours is really a long shot," Dillon said. "The environmental groups, the homebuilders, the real-estate agents are all rallying behind our amendment. But unless you have four votes, it doesn't really matter."

Tomorrow the council will also take up a bill sponsored by Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, that would create tax incentives for homeowners installing systems to limit runoff into streams and rivers. Based on the council's response, that initiative stands the best chance for passage.

With the state lawmakers putting the finishing touches on a number of tax increases last week during a special session, some council members might be wary of piling on more fees, either through the SMART fund or the council amendment, Dillon said.

"Council members may feel the public has been burdened enough," Dillon said, "and they don't want to push any further."

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