Obstacles ahead for stormwater fund

Council reshapes proposal to rebuild streams, tributaries

By ERIN COX, Staff Writer Published October 16, 2007

The proposed county "SMART Fund" to fix damaged streams and tributaries was reshaped by four amendments last night, but political support for the idea appears shaky. "It's still bad, it's just not as bad," said Councilman Ed Middlebrooks, the most adamant opponent to the measure.

As written, the bill would charge a fee on new impervious surfaces and generate $5 million a year to combat damage from stormwater run-off, an environmental concern linked to the polluted waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

The County Council has been critical of the SMART fund, an acronym for Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries, and accepted four amendments County Executive John R. Leopold proposed to save the bill, which he calls an important first step.

Two amendments lessened the scope of the fee by exempting small projects and extending a three-year grace period to people rebuilding damaged property. Two others clarified that the money can only be spent on the $1.3 billion backlog of stream and tributary restoration projects.

Still, every councilman expressed doubt, setting up several political obstacles for the bill's passage at the next hearing on Nov. 5.

Councilmen Ed Reilly, R-Crofton, and Daryl Jones, D-Severn, voted for the amendments grudgingly, saying they still had deep concerns about the measure's fairness.

Chairman Ron Dillon, R-Pasadena, and councilmen Jamie Benoit and Josh Cohen, Democrats from Crownsville and Annapolis, respectively, argued $5 million was not enough to tackle a problem with a price tag in the billions.

"We've been 30-plus years, trying to save the bay and we haven't had much impact," Mr. Dillon said. "It's time to be radical."

The bi-partisan trio suggested an amendment to revamp the fund's source and charge every tax account in the county $25 a year.

However, they agreed to delay that proposal until next month in order to secure more votes.

Councilwoman Cathy Vitale, R-Severna Park, introduced an alternate bill to fix stormwater problems by offering a tax incentive. It would benefit homeowners for lessening environmental impacts from existing property.

And Mr. Middlebrooks, R-Severn, repeated his assessment that the SMART fund is "laughable," a way to circumvent the voter-imposed tax cap, and that fixing pollution in the bay should be a regional effort.

"I don't see this as an Anne Arundel County problem," Mr. Middlebrooks said. "I see this as a regional problem. We could spend all $5 billion tomorrow, fix every river and every stream, and it wouldn't make a difference ... I don't want to pass laws to feel good."

Alan Friedman, Mr. Leopold's director of government relations, disagreed. He said the fund is a big increase over what is currently collected to combat stormwater problems, and he told the council the SMART fund was an important first step to fixing polluted waterways.

"This is really a question of leadership," Mr. Friedman said. "It's a question of whether the county is going to take control of the destiny of its rivers and streams."

Environmentalists who testified supported the bill as a "first step," but reiterated that more needed to be done.

"This proposal is not going to reverse the legacy of pollution," said Bob Gallagher, riverkeeper of the West and Rhode Rivers. "If we don't do this now, history will judge us for crimes against nature and harming future generations."

Bob Burdon, president and CEO of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, told the council the SMART fund unfairly puts the burden of stormwater management on a small segment of the community when the cost should be borne by everyone, a view shared by the Homebuilders Association of Maryland.

"It's just like shoveling sand in the ocean," resident Paul Higgins testified. "We're not going to accomplish anything besides spend a lot of money."

(Revised Oct 2007)