Stormwater fees needed to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, environmental groups say

Raising fees is not usually popular, but at times is necessary in order to invest in the future.

That is the point the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is trying to make in what, admittedly, feels like a lonely cause: trying to educate the public on the need for stormwater remediation fees in Maryland.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation spokesman Tom Zolper said combating stormwater runoff is one of the biggest battles supporters of the bay and pollution reduction face today. He estimates that up to 70 percent of the pollution in the Inner Harbor can be traced back to runoff in the wake of storms.

"Stormwater remediation is a major problem for Maryland's waterways," Zolper said. "The amount of trash and pollution that makes its way into the Bay and the streams that feed the bay is incredible. Anyone who lives near many local waterways will tell you it's not advised to go in those rivers and streams after storms because the bacteria level is so high."

Zolper added that he finds few people who don't support his organization's efforts to clean up the bay. At the same time, tempers often flare when trying to educate the public about the need for the fees, which opponents have dubbed "the rain tax."

In 2012, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation requiring the state's nine largest jurisdictions and Baltimore City to develop a fee system, which state officials said was required due to an EPA mandate.

Those fees were required to be in place by July 1, 2013 . Each jurisdiction has taken a unique approach to the fees, with the price tag ranging widely from county to county. Carroll County decided against establishing a fee, instead deciding to use existing funds to cover the initiative. Frederick County opted to charge just a penny per property owner. Both have come under scrutiny by the state.

"Everyone wants a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay," Larry Hogan, chairman of Change Maryland, said in a statement. "But this most recent missive from [Gov. Martin O'Malley's] administration proves that this is more about increasing people's taxes than protecting our Bay. It's time for us to start electing real leaders who will fund important projects like cleaning up the Bay without breaking the backs of taxpayers."

At the same time, other jurisdictions that passed fees have decided to take a second look at what they passed, with hopes of either eliminating or greatly reducing the fees. These jurisdictions include Anne Arundel County, where some county council members sought to reduce the fees to $1.

The measure, introduced by Councilman Daryl Jones, was defeated Monday night by a 4-3 vote. Currently, Anne Arundel residential property owners pay between $34 and $170 while businesses pay based on the amount of impervious surface.

"It was really smart for Anne Arundel County to stay the course," Zolper said. "The staff there understands what needs to be done and the projects generated by these fees will help make the beaches cleaner, the water cleaner and reduce flooding in the area after storms."

Lawmakers in Harford County are also seeking ways to combat the fees. Harford County Executive David Craig, a Republican running for governor, wants to repeal the fees locally .

In Harford, the county council set its fee at $125 a year for homeowners and $7 per 500 square feet of impervious area for commercial businesses. Only 10 percent of those fees would be collected in the first year, however.

In addition, Harford County state Sen. Barry Glassman announced that he will introduce legislation which would place a moratorium on the levying of any fines, penalties or administrative actions by the Maryland Department of the Environment regarding the fees. Glassman, a candidate for Harford County executive, also supports repealing the fees entirely.

"With the annual legislative session approaching and the need for some uniformity and clarity from the legislature, I think it makes sense to at the very least halt the penalty phase until jurisdictions get proper guidance on local funding and the establishment of credit programs, as well as answers to the many questions regarding the inherent inequalities and severity of this tax," Glassman said in a statement.

Zolper said it can be hard to educate the public about the fees, because it's not a "sexy issue" and people gravitate to terms like "rain tax" without exploring all sides of the issue. He cited a similar debate in 2004 when Maryland, under Gov. Bob Ehrlich, passed the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, which was dubbed "the flush tax."

Zolper said that fees have generated tens of millions of dollars to upgrade the state's 67 major sewer treatment plants.

"Over the past nine years, the state has been able to upgrade 30 sewage treatment plants and that has led to a reduction by thousands of tons the amount of waste that has reached the bay," Zolper said. "No one can deny the positive impact that fee has had on the environment. This stormwater fee will have a similar result."

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