Guest Columnist:

SMART Fund would be a start on cleaning up the bay

By JOHN R. LEOPOLD
Published October 21, 2007
The Capital

The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are among Anne Arundel County’s greatest natural resources. Our waters are not only a place for fun and outdoor recreation but also provide employment opportunities and economic growth in our region. Unfortunately, 30 years after Congress enacted the Clean Water Act, the bay has been listed as an “impaired water body” under that act, due to excess nutrients and sediment.

National and state efforts to stem this mounting tide of pollution have not succeeded. Our county government must step up and play a proactive role in cleaning up the waters that touch our shores.

My administration is committed to spending more than $160 million during the next 10 years to meet the challenge of managing the stormwater runoff that is a major contributor to our unhealthy rivers and streams. These funds will implement capital projects and best practices that can improve our water quality.

Even with this significant capital construction program, the unique challenge posed by this pollution to our quality of life cannot be met without additional funds. Every one of Anne Arundel County’s 12 watersheds is listed as “ impaired” by biologic, nutrient and sediment contamination.

Given the magnitude of the problem, we do not have the luxury, as suggested in an the editorial in this newspaper (The Sunday Capital, Oct. 14), of waiting to “first see what the state decides to do about the green fund.” I was elected to lead. It’s my responsibility to do what I can as county executive to improve the water quality of our streams and rivers.

The problem has been identified and measured and the challenge is great. But the consequence of complacency is unacceptable.

I have proposed increasing our capital construction program to save our waters through creation of the Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries, or SMART, Fund.

This would replace the current storm drainage fee, which is assessed at 1.5 cents per square foot of gross area disturbed by construction activity, including grading.

It would be a special, nonlapsing fund identified in the county budget for stormwater management projects throughout the county, focusing on stream restoration. Allocations of SMART Fund revenue between operating expenses and capital projects would be subject to approval by the County Council.

The SMART Fund would supplement, not supplant, county funding for stormwater management capital projects. Revenues from it could also be used as matching funds for any federal, state or private grant for funding stormwater management programs.

The fund would consist of revenue from fees imposed on building and grading permits. No fee would be required if the activity required a permit, but did not involve an increase in existing impervious surface. An example of this: replacement of a free-standing garage with a new garage on the same “footprint.”

No fee would be required if the activity did not require a grading or building permit. (Certain small projects are currently exempted from these requirements). And no fee would be required if the impervious surface added consisted only of a retaining wall.

Small homeowner projects adding less than 150 square feet of impervious surface would be exempt and pay no fee.

The SMART Fund fees would be focused on added impervious surface, as opposed to the current charge, which is imposed on “gross area of disturbance, including grading.”

The SMART Fund is rationally related to the problem we are working to address. We must do everything we can to discourage the addition of impervious surface in our construction and building activities.

Unlike state “green fund” proposals, the SMART Fund fees would stay in Anne Arundel County to be used on projects here. My administration would be accountable to the taxpayers for how their money is spent. Also, unlike state green fund fees, SMART Fund dollars could not be raided for use in the general fund.

The Capital suggested that “written guarantees” would ensure that the revenue generated by an all-payer stormwater tax could not be raided to balance state budgets. But the only way this fund could be protected would be with a “firewall” amendment to the state constitution. I have advocated this for years, but governors and the General Assembly leadership have consistently rejected it.

The SMART Fund could add more than $55 million to our 10-year program to reduce stormwater runoff and help clean up our waterways. Our county residents already annually provide almost $12 million of their income and property taxes to stormwater management projects. I have attempted to structure the SMART Fund in a way that would add to the fiscal resources that can be directed at the problem without imposing too great a burden on new housing, or on the average homeowner doing minor renovations.

The fund could also be a source of matching funds to leverage additional federal or state grants that could be used for these projects.

But even this will not finish the job. Keeping our waterways clean and healthy is a solemn obligation that we owe to ourselves and our children and grandchildren. The SMART Fund is a start on meeting that obligation.
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The writer is Anne Arundel County executive.

(Revised Oct 2007)