Our Say: On stormwater issue, all-payer plan is the best choice

Published December 02, 2007
The Capitol

Tomorrow the County Council will hold a hearing on stormwater management legislation that offers a great opportunity to finally do something about the county's huge backlog of unfunded projects. We hope the council listens closely to the supporters - the riverkeepers, watermen and environmentalists - who are eager to see the county take some long-overdue action to address this serious environmental problem.

The council has been considering two plans to address the damage done by stormwater runoff. County Executive John Leopold initially proposed to levy a fee on new impervious surfaces alone. This is expected to raise $5 million a year.

The second plan - proposed by Councilmen Ron Dillon, Jamie Benoit and Josh Cohen - would levy a $30 fee on every house, no matter its size. There would also be a graduated fee for businesses, based on the amount of impervious surface. This "all-payer" plan is projected to raise $11 million a year.

We endorse the all-payer plan and encourage its speedy passage.

Mr. Leopold's proposal spares current homeowners another fee - by overburdening new homeowners whose projects add runoff to sediment-choked creeks.

But everyone knows that stormwater runoff is not just coming from new construction. Anyone with a driveway or sloping property contributes to the sediment that ends up in stream beds and the runoff that winds up in the bay.

Ideally, we'd prefer that a graduated fee, like that proposed for businesses, be assessed on residences according to property size. But a flat fee paid by everyone is easier and less expensive to administer.

It is true, as Mr. Leopold argues, that money from the taxes existing homeowners pay is used to dredge creeks and work on the stormwater problem. But hundreds of stormwater projects are going unfunded.

Actually, stricter environmental standards make new development less of a threat to the environment than the structures built long before the rules changed. And piling more fees on new home construction is going to make the dream of homeownership even more elusive. If anything, the county should be looking for ways to reduce fees, not add them.

Despite the support of three councilmen, the all-payer measure faces stiff council opposition.

Councilman Daryl Jones did not support it during his election campaign. Councilman Ed Middlebrooks, even though he cast the preliminary "yes" vote that set up tomorrow's hearing, has said he will not, in the end, vote for the plan. Councilman Ed Reilly hasn't taken a position. Councilman Cathy Vitale says she prefers an incentive plan rewarding those who exceed environmental standards.

Incentives and current tax revenue aren't enough to reduce a backlog of projects that one official estimates at more than $1 billion. A $30 fee paid by everyone is the most promising approach. And it seems to have wide public support.

(Revised Dec 2007)