Leopold seeks new fee for stormwater

The Capital, September 13, 2007

County Executive John R. Leopold has proposed legislation to create a fund for stormwater management projects.

It would be paid for by a fee based on newly built impervious surfaces and would generate $5 million a year to address stormwater runoff created by new construction.

Mr. Leopold said the Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries (SMART) fund will raise 10 times more than the current storm drainage fee, which will be eliminated if the County Council approves his plan. He also said it would create a source of money that could be used to match state and federal funds geared to addressing sediment pollution.

"In this case, the need (for the fee) is clear and unmistakable," Mr. Leopold said this morning. "It is an enormous challenge to address all the needs that we have."

Stormwater runoff pouring off paved surfaces and rooftops rather than being slowly absorbed by plants and trees is the root of the problem that has gouged out streams and watersheds, carrying untold tons of sediments loaded with other pollutants into streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. Federal mandates require that sediment pollution be reduced.

"I made a commitment during my campaign that I would identify a fiscally responsible way to address stormwater management without increasing property taxes, and the legislation I am submitting to the council accomplishes this goal," Mr. Leopold said.

The new fee would be levied on new construction at a rate of 25 cents per square foot of the impervious surface it creates, which would include parking lots, buildings or other structures that prevent stormwater from soaking into the ground. That fee would only apply to projects that require a grading permit.

The fee could add about $750 to the cost of an average sized home built on a quarter-acre lot.

A 15 cent per square foot fee will be charged for projects that only require a building permit.

No fee would be charged on projects that do not require either permit. And there will be no fee for projects that do not increase a property's impervious surface.

Mr. Leopold said his method matches the "Green Fund" approach backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration, and it is likely the Green Fund bill will resurface in the Maryland General Assembly this year. Mr. Leopold also said his efforts may promote an amendment to grant state tax dollars to counties that collect a similar tax.

Some conservationists who have pushed for a stormwater fund say it is a good start.

"It is a step in the right direction," said John Flood. "This is the culmination of a process and years of work initiated by environmental groups working with the Department of Public Works."

He commended Mr. Leopold for "having the good sense" to propose it.

Mr. Flood lauded long-time stormwater management fund advocate Public Works Director Ron Bowen for "carrying this ball all the way down the field. He is a truly dedicated public servant."

Mr. Leopold said while the SMART fund would be a step in addressing the estimated $400 to $700 million backlog in stormwater related problems from the past, he said it is geared to prevent more damage from new construction

"While it addresses a fraction of the problems, it's a good start," Mr. Leopold said.

Councilman Josh Cohen, D-Annapolis, said "there's no question in my mind that a new fee structure is needed" because right now new construction does not pay for the stormwater problems it creates.

Also, Mr. Cohen said it is unclear on how the county's fund will be used - whether it will promote old stormwater management techniques known to worsen pollution, require newer methods that treat stormwater or help repair damaged streams.

He and Councilman Jamie Benoit, D-Crownsville, intend to "closely read" the bill and may offer amendments to direct how the funds will be spent.

South River Federation President Kincey Potter said she has a similar concern.

"One of the things we believe is necessary is to have a dedicated fund to be used only for the purpose of doing stormwater management and retrofits," she said.

Overall she thinks it is a good start but hopes it is just that, a start.

"$5.1 million is a small amount of money compared to the problem," she said. "We now spend $11 million on capital stormwater projects. This is a drop in the bucket."

The cost to repair the damage done by previous policies, or construction done before stormwater regulations came into effect in the 1980s, is ballooning as costs rise and more damage is done by runoff.

For instance, one project to repair damage on Cowhide Branch, a tributary of Weems Creek and the Severn River, has a price tag of $2.3 million. And there are several more large projects needed on the Severn River alone.

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday released a report saying the bay region won't meet goals for reducing harmful runoff into the bay tributaries.

According to the report, from the EPA's Inspector General, the amount of land covered by impervious surfaces grew by 41 percent in the 1990s. It proposed limits on growth and use of new techniques to control runoff.

Mr. Leopold's proposal is his way of addressing the issue that came up during last year's election.

Some had proposed a fee, or tax, that all property owners would pay based on the amount of impervious surface on their land. It would have charged roughly $60 per year, money that would be put into a fund dedicated to projects that mend the effects of runoff.

(Revised September 2007)