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Water cleanup fee due debate

The Baltimore Sun

The Anne Arundel County Council will debate legislation that would charge most homeowners $30 a year to pay for repairs to damaged local waterways, after its proponents found an unlikely ally: a councilman who fiercely opposes the bill.

C. Edward Middlebrooks cast the crucial fourth vote Monday night, amending County Executive John R. Leopold's so-called SMART fund.

While Leopold's plan would levy a fee only on property owners who built new impervious surfaces, such as patios, homes and parking lots, the new legislation calls for an "all-payer" system that would also include a sliding-scale charge on most commercial and industrial properties.

"I've been against this bill from Day One, but if you feel this strongly about it, let's have a good public debate," Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican, told the amendment's sponsors.

He made it clear that council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican, and Democrats Josh Cohen and Jamie Benoit must look elsewhere for a fourth vote required to pass the new fee.

"This is an issue that needs to be addressed by the entire region, and shouldn't be put just on the taxpayers of Anne Arundel County," he said.

Leopold, who vowed during his campaign last year to address storm-water runoff across the county's 530 miles of shoreline, introduced legislation in September to create a fee paid by property owners or homebuilders based on the amount of impervious surfaces they create. He said it would raise $5.3 million a year - five times the amount of the current storm drainage fee, which would be eliminated.

Dillon, Cohen and Benoit said their amended bill is a more equitable way of sharing responsibility for damaged waterways, which have become polluted over the course of decades. Dillon called it "an investment in the environment, an investment in our lifestyle. ... It's a small cost with major, major returns."

But Leopold reiterated concerns yesterday as to whether it was fair to impose more charges on all homeowners, who already contribute $11 million a year for runoff and dredging projects through property and income taxes.

His original bill would hit developers with an average fee of $1,400 on new homes. Business leaders estimate that a typical charge on commercial properties could soar to $30,000.

Leopold said taxpayers should not bear a further burden unless they add to the county's impervious surfaces.

"There's a connection between the expansion of a [property] footprint to the fee being paid," Leopold said.

And he was wary of imposing a flat fee. "The million-dollar mansion will pay the same tax as a townhome," he said.

The amended bill would waive the $30 fee from households with an annual income of no more than $35,000, and would not apply in Annapolis, which has a storm water utility.

Commercial and industrial property owners would, under the amended bill, pay $30 per 2,500 square feet of impervious surface, with a maximum fee of $25,000. Cohen estimated that the average business owner would pay less than $200 a year.

Environmentalists have supported the amendment, saying it would raise more money to tackle the $1.3 billion backlog in projects to repair waterways and restore watersheds.

"The longer we wait, the more expensive that price tag becomes," said Drew Koslow, a riverkeeper, or environmental watchdog, for the South River.

Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale found broad support for tax incentives to reward property owners who use systems to reduce river and stream runoff. But she voted against the amendment, saying its details were unclear and that the council would be creating a fee that could be increased over time, as environmentalists have previously petitioned for a $60 fee.

Leopold, meanwhile, said he was not ready to give up on his original bill. A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 3.

"This is a nine-inning game, and we've got at least two innings to play," he said.

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