GRASONVILLE — — Anne Arundel County Executive Laura A. Neuman and the head of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sparred Tuesday over the storm water fees enacted this year on homeowners and businesses in Maryland's most populous localities.
Testifying at a Senate subcommittee hearing presided over by Sen. Ben Cardin, Neuman reiterated her opposition to the state-mandated fee, which she and other critics deride as a "rain tax."
The storm water fee requirement imposed by state lawmakers on Baltimore and the state's nine largest counties generated substantial debate this spring, as all faced a July 1 deadline for imposing some kind of charge on property owners to cover costs of reducing polluted runoff.
The Republican executive vetoed fee legislation in Arundel in the spring, calling it unfair and poorly explained, only to be overridden by the County Council. She predicted that it would be an election issue next year.
Neuman said she supports the bay cleanup but felt her county's residents are bearing a disproportionate burden. To meet pollution reduction goals set by the Environmental Protection Agency, she said, Arundel faces having to spend $1 billion on storm water controls, plus another $1.5 billion to extend sewer service to homes on septic systems.
Arguing that the Chesapeake is a national treasure akin to the Everglades or the Great Lakes, she said, "No one county, no one state, no one region should have to be burdened with its remediation."
Cardin, who called the field hearing to review progress in the 30-year-old effort to restore the bay, agreed generally that it is a national responsibility. The Maryland Democrat pressed the EPA on when it would issue new nationwide rules to reduce storm water pollution, and urged the agency to help reduce the costs of the bay cleanup by promoting trading of pollution "credits" between local governments and farmers.
But William C. Baker, president of the Annapolis-based bay foundation, countered later that complaints such as Neuman's threaten to undermine what he said is "overwhelming" public support for cleaning up the bay. He charged that Marylanders were being misled by those with "political agendas."
"The greatest challenge is hearing local officials complain about how costly this will be," Baker said, "and using dollar amounts that are simply unsubstantiated by reality … scaring people into thinking that we can't afford to save the bay."
Rep. John Sarbanes, who joined Cardin at the hearing, said he hoped those who live within the bay watershed could be persuaded to accept paying more to restore the bay.
The Baltimore County Democrat suggested that legislation he introduced in the House two years ago might help if it passed, as it would require the EPA to give credit to counties and municipalities for rain gardens, rain barrels and other stormwater controls homeowners voluntarily install on their property.
Nicholas A. DiPasquale, director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program office in Annapolis, said there were "clear signs of recovery" in the estuary after three decades of effort, but still much to do by 2025, the latest cleanup deadline.
He said officials from the federal government and the six states in the bay watershed, including Maryland, are working to adopt a new restoration agreement by year's end that would refine the long-running effort.