Compromise reached on storm-water pollution rules

Baltimore Sun

Builders, environmentalists and government officials have reached a compromise in a looming legislative fight that threatened to weaken Maryland's new storm-water pollution rules, they said Monday.

The deal, hammered out over more than a week of negotiations, would head off a move by lawmakers in Annapolis to soften or delay by up to a decade the requirements for controlling runoff from development, which are supposed to take effect May 4.

Environmentalists were girding for a major battle to defend the rules, which were written to tackle a significant and growing source of pollution that is fouling streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

"Not everybody's going to be happy," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, who pushed the feuding parties to work out their differences. But she added, "We have not changed any of the specifications within those regulations - we've just allowed a transition period. And we have, I think, given a little bit more consideration to redevelopment projects."

Under the deal, the state Department of the Environment would amend its rules to "grandfather" some residential and commercial developments already in the planning pipeline. The state also would grant some flexibility to redevelopment projects in designated growth areas, easing how much they must control runoff from lawns, buildings and pavement.

"We do have an agreement that I think is fairly concrete," said Kathleen Maloney, lobbyist for the Maryland State Builders Association, which had pressed for relief from the regulations. Builders and local officials alike appeared to have made inroads in Annapolis for tinkering with the rules written to carry out a storm-water pollution law overwhelmingly approved in 2007.

The law and its rules require developers to better control rainfall washing off their projects, so that there is no more runoff and it is no more polluted than it was before construction began. Builders had to reduce the amount of pavement so more rain could soak into the soil naturally, instead of collecting it in large ponds or underground tanks.

Developers argued the regulations would cripple or kill some projects in the works by imposing huge additional costs, or forcing them to reduce the density of development. Local officials were especially worried that the runoff requirements would undermine the state's Smart Growth policies and worsen sprawl, by making it less economical to redevelop urban and some older suburban sites.

Thomas M. Farasy, president of the Maryland State Builders Association, couldn't say how many projects were in jeopardy. But he said planning and financing had been completed in many cases, and making new arrangements would be difficult in this economy. Losing the projects or scaling back would harm the state's recovery, he said.

"People have been investing in them for five, six or seven years, and this definitely would have impacted them," he said. "They entered the process with a given set of rules, and it's fair for those rules to remain in place. It's unfair to change the rules at the bottom of the ninth and doubly unfair if you layer them over the current economic situation."

Legislators had responded by introducing bills meant to address those concerns, but some would go further - delaying the new pollution control requirements for up to a decade, for instance. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, had expressed concern about how the new rules might affect major redevelopment projects in the city, such as the $1.2 billion waterfront complex in Westport by developer Patrick Turner.

State environmental officials had said they would be issuing "guidance" to clarify the rules and that should address most concerns. But the agency will now issue emergency regulations to revise the storm-water requirements.

"We're pleased that we have reached consensus on guidance and regulatory changes that will resolve these concerns," MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus said in an e-mail. She said details are forthcoming.

McIntosh has canceled her panel's hearings Wednesday on a trio of storm-water bills. She said her panel would not take a vote but might revive them if MDE's emergency rules are not adopted by the end of the legislative session, in mid-April.

Under the compromise, projects that already have preliminary approval from county or municipal government would be able to proceed in many cases under existing, less-stringent, storm-water rules. Developers would get up to three years to get final local approval of their plans, but they would have to start construction by 2017 or be forced to install more runoff controls.

Environmentalists have pressed to get new storm-water controls in place as soon as possible, saying that runoff from urban and suburban lands is the only source of bay pollution that is growing.

"It's never a good thing where we're going to postpone cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay a bit," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, an anti-sprawl group. But she said the deal clarifies and limits the breaks given to projects.

Redevelopment projects in designated growth areas also would be eligible for waivers. Baltimore City and Baltimore County officials had complained, as had others, that the regulations would discourage "infill" development and urban and suburban revitalization efforts.

"We think we've got a solution here that's a reasonable solution and that acknowledges the reality of projects we're trying to get in the future," said David A.C. Carroll, director of sustainability for Baltimore County.

Environmentalists said they were satisfied in preventing more serious changes in the law.

"It is a compromise," said Kim Coble, Maryland director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. While the deal grants "more flexibility and some delay" in controlling polluted runoff, she said, "The good side of this is that the original intent of the 2007 legislation has not been compromised."

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

Compromise details: •Developers of projects with preliminary approval would be exempt from the stricter storm-water rules if they get final local approval of their plans within three years and start construction by 2017.

•Redevelopment projects in designated growth areas with less than 40 percent pavement would be eligible for some breaks on how much storm water would need to be controlled.

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