Storm over storm water

Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is not unlike cleaning up one's home. Everyone wants things to be neat and tidy, but nobody wants to be stuck with the chore. The latest example of this phenomenon can be found in the halls of the State House, where some influential groups are pushing for a relaxation or perhaps delay in imposing new rules on managing the water that runs off property after a storm.

They are not opposed to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, or even tighter controls over storm water runoff.

Instead, their argument puts an unusually green twist on deregulation: They say new rules developed by the Maryland Department of the Environment and now being adopted by local governments will discourage recycling of land in older communities, direct more sprawl-type development in suburban and exurban open spaces, and therefore run counter to Maryland's stated Smart Growth philosophy.

And it's not just builders who would like to see the rules relaxed but also leaders such as Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who has taken up their cause out of concern that redevelopment zones may be greatly hampered.

But before lawmakers rush to turn back the clock on a storm water law that was passed nearly three years ago and is supposed to go into effect this May, they will need to scrutinize this claim a bit more closely. After all, what they are asking is that redevelopment projects be allowed to pollute.

That's a tough argument to sell, especially with the health of the Chesapeake Bay in crisis. The state has met with some success in addressing such sources as sewage effluent and factory discharge, but storm water is one area where pollution is getting worse.

Aha, opponents may say, if the policy causes more building in open spaces, wouldn't that ultimately be worse for the environment? Absolutely, but only if it causes such an open space land rush, and the evidence that it will is suspect at best.

How much financial burden do storm water regulations cause? Nobody seems to know for sure, but some other states are just as strict. At least two Maryland counties, Montgomery and Carroll, have already imposed similar regulations on their own.

The sprawl complaint is also a familiar one. Some local governments fretted the same thing would happen a decade ago -- the last time the state stiffened storm water controls -- and the redevelopment sky did not fall.

In Baltimore County, officials concede that redevelopment efforts won't be affected immediately because existing projects are exempted under a grandfather clause and because the economic downturn has already put a damper on future construction. If the regulations have an impact, it won't be felt until the real estate market recovers -- at which time the outlook for (and economics of) redevelopment may be greatly enhanced.

Better for the MDE to adopt the regulations as planned and re-evaluate, if necessary, in several years. To backtrack now after all the compromises and delays that the rules have already endured would only enable polluters and reward any industry that drags its feet over environmental regulations.

Staying the course would not only represent a victory for the Chesapeake Bay but also for taxpayers. After all, who do you think pays to clean up storm water when the rules for new construction are relaxed? Inevitably, it will mean government spending to retrofit existing development with storm water control ponds and similar improvements to make up the difference. That's the most expensive proposition of all.

Readers respond

The new regulation requires that the storm water runoff from new construction have the same characteristics as the storm water runoff from a healthy forest -- the highest performing land use. Similarly, redevelopment projects are required to retrofit and improve the existing environmental conditions more than they are today.

With the support of the development industry and local government, the Maryland General Assembly instructed that these new storm water management rules be applied to "the maximum extent practicable." What is now being debated is whether it is "practicable" to apply 2010 rules to projects that have already been designed and received government approvals under existing storm water rules. Or, whether the redevelopment regulations are so onerous that urban land -- most with no existing storm water management of any kind -- will lie idle while redevelopment projects that could measurably clean up existing environmental problems are deflected away from Maryland's growth areas.

Tom Ballentine, Baltimore

The writer is the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties' vice president for policy and government relations.