Maryland threatens fines over stormwater pollution fee

Turning up the heat on local politicians over a contentious stormwater fee, Maryland officials warned Carroll County that it faces fines of up to $10,000 per day for refusing to impose the mandatory pollution cleanup charge, and cautioned two other counties that they could be next.

In a letter released Tuesday, the state attorney general's office notified Carroll officials that the county is in violation of a 2012 state law that required Baltimore City and Maryland's nine largest counties to adopt stormwater fees by July 1. The charges are to help pay for projects in each community to reduce polluted runoff from streets, parking lots and buildings.

Environment Secretary Robert M. Summers also wrote Frederick officials last week that the 1-cent fee they adopted in June wasn't enough and could subject the county in coming months to fines of $32,500 a day if it fails to put up enough money to reduce polluted runoff there.

Summers advised Harford officials in a letter that that their county faces enforcement action if it drops a $125 per-home fee adopted there in April. The council held a hearing Tuesday night on the repeal measure, which is being pushed by County Executive David R. Craig.

The warnings drew praise from environmentalists, who support the fees as a way to make local governments do more to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay. The Environmental Protection Agency is requiring stormwater curbs as part of a Chesapeake Bay pollution "diet" imposed on Maryland and other states that drain into the estuary.

But some elected officials in Carroll and Frederick said they felt blindsided by the letters and didn't appreciate being threatened by the state.

The state action seems certain to stir political debate in the coming year over the fee. Some legislators have pledged to revisit the fee requirement when the General Assembly convenes in January, and at least two Republican gubernatorial candidates, including Craig, have called for its repeal.

"It shows that the Maryland Department of the Environment is serious about the law and serious about reducing the one source of pollution that continues to increase, and that is pollution runoff," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Carroll Commissioner Richard Rothschild complained that the state is trying to force the county to levy a "tax on rain," as he put it, even though the five-member board of commissioners agreed to pay for $20 million worth of stormwater control projects using revenues from property taxes.

But the commissioners' plan to pay for stormwater cleanup with funds from existing taxes, or with bonds or grants, does not comply with the law, which requires a fee, wrote Paul N. De Santis, an assistant attorney general representing the state environmental agency.

With the county facing potential fines that already approach $1 million, Rothschild said Carroll officials would seek to meet with state officials and work something out that would satisfy both sides.

"Obviously, I want to try to shield the people of Carroll County from penalties," he said, "but I also want to shield them from unnecessary taxes."

Frederick officials expressed dismay at the state warning, saying they thought they had complied with the law by adopting a 1-cent fee on all county property owners. The 2012 law does not specify the size of the fee, they pointed out, bristling at the mention of penalties in the state letter.

"I've been dealing with bullies since I was in kindergarten, and I don't tolerate it," said Commissioner Billy Shrive.

Blaine R. Young, president of Frederick's five-member board of commissioners, said officials had put $3 million in the county budget to pay for stormwater cleanup, but "we just decided not to tax our residents."

Young lashed out at "gutless" legislators for requiring counties to undertake expensive retrofits of storm drains in their communities while leaving it up to local officials to impose another fee on residents.

"That's why you're starting to have urban areas even starting to rebel against the rain tax," Young said, and "why I expect to see it modified in the next [legislative] session."

Indeed, the Anne Arundel County Council this week lowered its stormwater fee for all nonprofit organizations to $1 a year. A Democratic councilman, Daryl Jones, has introduced a bill to reduce the charge to $1 for everyone. Residential property fees ranging from $34 to $170 a year are being phased in over three years.

The fees have become a campaign issue in next year's gubernatorial election. Harford's Craig, a Republican, has called on lawmakers to repeal the mandate even as he urges his county council to drop it now.

William "Billy" Boniface, president of Harford's seven-member County Council, said he was loath to risk state enforcement action by repealing its fee before the legislature has a chance to tinker with the law.

Harford's council set annual fees of $125 for every residential property and $7 per 500 square feet of commercial property covered with pavement or buildings. Boniface said he and other county lawmakers weren't happy with the fee structure, however, and decided to collect only 10 percent of it in the first year while a task force takes another look at the issue.

Boniface contended that the state could have handled the fee startup better, but added, "We're still required to meet EPA requirements. And if we don't we're opening ourselves up to pretty substantial fines, or even worse."

Jay Sakai, water management director for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said state officials decided to act after asking all the affected localities to report in August on what fees they were levying.

He said the letters to Frederick and Harford weren't meant to be threatening but "just highlighting the concerns that we have." He pointed out that the Harford letter was written in response to an inquiry from Boniface about what would happen if the fee was repealed.

Sakai said state officials don't really care about the size of the fees right now, but wanted Baltimore City and the nine largest counties to set up a means of paying for pollution control projects so they could comply with new stormwater cleanup orders due to them from the MDE by year's end.

The candidates for governor debated the state's threat of action in an environmental forum Tuesday in Annapolis

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler declined to say whether he categorically supported or rejected the stormwater fee, which his office is enforcing, but said he thought there were a lot of other ways to pay for cleaning up the bay.

Del. Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the only way the state will be able to meet its commitments to the federal government is to require local jurisdictions to comply with the law. "We can't just pass laws. We have to enforce them," she said.

But Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County, one of three Republican candidates, said the state is coming down too hard on local jurisdictions.

"I don't agree with how heavy-handed it is," George said. "We lose our independence as people if we lose our local locus of control."

Staff reporters Erin Cox, Michael Dresser and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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