Stormwater fee starting to take shape

Councilmen call for $30 fee on all homes in Anne Arundel

By ERIN COX, Staff Writer
Published November 17, 2007
The Capitol

Beside the eroded streambed of a no-name creek in a quiet Glen Burnie neighborhood yesterday, a bipartisan coalition of county councilmen unveiled plans to levy a stormwater fee on every homeowner and business in Anne Arundel. "This is in people's communities," said Councilman Ron Dillon, R-Pasadena, as he cast a hand toward the tiny creek at the bottom of a 10-foot deep gulch, dug into the land by years of quickly rushing stormwater. "You don't have to live on the water to have a (stormwater management) problem."

The "all-payer system" devised by Mr. Dillon and Democrats Josh Cohen and Jamie Benoit would raise about $11 million annually by charging each single-family home $30 a year and each business based on a sliding scale. The scale for businesses would charge $30 for every 2,500 square feet of surface impervious to rainwater, and the councilmen estimate it would cost a small business between $60 and $200 a year.

Business giants like the Arundel Mills mall in Hanover would be capped at $25,000 a year. Families that earn $35,000 a year or less could apply for a waiver and pay nothing.

Unveiling the all-payer plan yesterday sets the stage for a showdown on Monday night, when the council is scheduled to take up a competing plan pushed by County Executive John R. Leopold.

The all-payer plan to combat an estimated $1.3 billion backlog of damaged waterways has gained support from environmentalists, homebuilders and the business community, but it is unclear whether the plan will get the necessary four votes to move forward.

Councilman Ed Middlebrooks, R-Severn, has publicly rejected levying any new fees for stormwater and said the problem should be handled with a regional approach.

The new fees run counter to the campaign promises of Councilman Daryl Jones, D-Severn. And Republican Councilmen Cathy Vitale of Severna Park and Ed Reilly of Crofton have not publicly taken a stance on either the all-payer or new development proposals, although Ms. Vitale has introduced a separate plan to give tax breaks to people who voluntarily fix stormwater problems on their property.

She said the problem is best solved through incentives, not punitive taxes.

Already on the table is Mr. Leopold's plan to raise about $5 million a year by charging new development.

Mr. Leopold's SMART Fund, an acronym for Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries, would levy a fee on new impervious surfaces. Those are surfaces such as pavement and buildings that prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground and send it rushing into the bay's tributaries.

Mr. Leopold's proposal, first introduced in September, launched months of political debate over stormwater management and how the county should repair the 12 watersheds in Anne Arundel, all of which fail federal Clean Water Act standards. Meanwhile, state lawmakers are negotiating setting aside $51 million a year for stormwater pollution. Those lawmakers rejected an across-the-board fee, which Mr. Leopold interprets as a sign that "all-payer systems" are not politically realistic.

Mr. Leopold criticized the all-payer plan yesterday, saying it "inequitably" charged a small home the same fee as a $1 million sprawling mansion. He calls his approach of charging new development "a first step" and says, "I have to work with in the parameters of fiscal reality and affordability."

Although initially hailed as an important step forward, his plan has come under increasing fire from councilmen, the business community and some environmentalists for raising too little money to fight the problem and for unfairly charging new development when existing structures cause most of the problems.

"What you see right now is a unique situation where the business community and the environmentalists share the opinion that an all-payer system is necessary," said Bob Burdon, president of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce. "If we're truly going to make a dent in the problem, then an all-payer system makes more sense."

Eliot Powel, president of the Anne Arundel County Homebuilders Association, also threw his support behind the all-payer plan.

Anne Pearson, director of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities and a stormwater management advocate, said new state rules for stormwater management are being developed, and newer buildings will have virtually no contribution to worsening stormwater problems.

"(Mr.) Leopold's bill charges new development, and new development isn't the problem," she said, adding that she would not support his plan if the all-payer system failed. "The point is not to burden new development with an additional fee for doing the right thing, but allow it to move in that direction and to place the responsibility for restoring the watersheds onto those of us who are contributing to the problem."

Mr. Leopold said he received written testimony from the director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an advocacy group for the waterway, supporting either the all-payer or new development method for funding stream restoration.

(Revised Nov 2007)