Easing of storm-water pollution rules approved

An O'Malley administration proposal to ease Maryland's stringent new storm-water pollution rules won legislative approval last night, capping a fierce debate over whether the Chesapeake Bay would suffer from giving developers more time and leeway in having to clamp down on rainfall washing off their building projects.

After a three-hour hearing, the House-Senate Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review overwhelmingly endorsed emergency changes to state storm-water pollution regulations that are scheduled to take effect in a month. The revisions were proposed by the Maryland Department of the Environment after an outcry from developers and local officials had prompted lawmakers to move to roll back the regulations by legislation.

At stake were requirements that developers stop building ponds to collect rainfall from their parking lots and lawns and instead redesign their projects so that the water could soak into the ground naturally. Such runoff is a significant and growing source of pollution and mud fouling local streams and the bay.

But builders had complained that it would be costly and unfair to expect them to redesign projects already in the works, while local officials warned that the new pollution requirements could undermine their efforts to revive urban and older suburban areas.

The changes approved by the committee would exempt 1,000 to to 1,500 development projects statewide from the new storm-water rules for up to seven years, and possibly longer in some cases, because they those projects already are in the local planning pipeline. Officials provided those estimates yesterday for the first time of the extent of how many projects would be able to proceed under existing requirements. The approved changes also give local officials more leeway to relax some runoff controls for redevelopment projects.

Environment Secretary Shari Wilson argued that the changes are reasonable and would not undermine the state's efforts to restore the bay. The number of "grandfathered" projects represents just a fraction of the overall building activity in the state, she said, and a tiny portion of the pollution fouling the bay and its tributaries.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, had stalled panel action on the department's proposed changes to the regulations until yesterday. He relented after the House overwhelmingly passed legislation making the same changes, and with Senate action looming. Pinsky said he wanted more information about their impact before acting, but was among the handful voting no at the hearing's end.

"The bay is dying by a thousand cuts," Pinsky said. "Is this the worst one? No, but it's symptomatic."

Despite the breaks being given, Wilson contended, the new rules "will make Maryland the de facto leader among Chesapeake Bay states and the national leader in storm-water control."

Joining Wilson in support of the changes were local officials such as Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who said that his county's efforts to revitalize older suburbs may falter if the new rules were applied too strictly. Builders also pointed out they had invested millions in planning and starting construction of some projects that could be forced to go back to the drawing boards.

The changes divided environmentalists, with groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and 1000 Friends of Maryland saying they had negotiated with builders and officials to clarify the requirements and put limits on how long projects could put off meeting the new rules. Under the changes, projects with preliminary local approval have until 2013 to get the final OK and then must start construction by 2017.

But other environmentalists decried the changes, arguing that there should be no concessions since the bay restoration is lagging and some waters are actually unsafe to swim in.

"This is more than just a Chesapeake Bay problem, this is a public health problem," contended former U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings.

Letting development projects avoid meeting the new requirements will shift more of the burden of cleaning up the bay and its tributaries to government, and to the taxpayers, activists warned.

After the vote, Del. Marvin Holmes, a Prince George's Democrat who'd introduced legislation relaxing the storm-water rules, said he would withdraw his bill now that the changes had been made via regulation.