Stormwater debate rushes to top of council's agenda

Who will pay and how much?

By E.B. FURGURSON III, Staff Writer
Published October 14, 2007

Anne Arundel County is facing a mandatory multi-billion dollar environmental cleanup of its watersheds under the federal Clean Air Act.

Tomorrow night, the County Council holds a hearing on a bill to create a dedicated fund to help meet that charge.

It likely will be a wild ride.

Dubbed the "SMART Fund," the measure would make people creating new impervious surfaces, such as roofs and parking lots, pay a per-square-foot charge.

The money raised, about $5 million a year, would be spent on repairing the damage stormwater runoff from those surfaces has done to streams, creeks and watersheds and the Chesapeake Bay.

The new fund would supplement $11 million the county now spends on similar tasks. It also would provide matching funds for potential state, federal or private money geared for stormwater work.

Some residents think it is a solid start.

But others say it's a mere drop in the bucket, dwarfed by the problem at hand.

And still others consider it nothing but another vile tax foisted upon the average Joe.

Another plan to fix the ravages of runoff was a hot issue during the last election.

Some of its supporters, most notably county executive candidate George Johnson, lost. But some, like Councilman Josh Cohen, D-Annapolis, won.

That plan, modeled on others across the nation, called for a roughly $60 per year fee (later determined to be a form of excise tax) per property based on the amount of impervious surface on the ground. It would have raised roughly $21 million per year and created a stormwater utility.

People would have been able to earn a credit of up to 50 percent of the fee for retrofitting their properties to reduce runoff, a significant incentive for large commercial properties.

The proposal also would have provided a steady flow of funds to aid the long-term planning required to tackle the huge problem.

Equity

The proposed SMART fund would only charge a fee on the creation of new impervious surfaces. But the majority of damage the money is needed to fix is in areas built on in the past. That is one shortcoming of the plan some say.

"The bill singles out new construction when our current practices are (far) better than what we were doing 20 years ago," Councilman Jamie Benoit, D-Crownsville, said. "It makes no sense, politically, socially or as policy to stick it to people who are doing the best stormwater work."

County requirements for construction are more costly than ever, Councilman Ed Reilly, D-Crofton said. "Now this will be added to the back of new development to fix old development?"

Council Chairman Ron Dillon Jr., R-Pasadena, was more direct. "It puts the cost of old sins on new development," he said at a work session on the bill last week.

"Why not spread the fee to everyone?... Why not spread it out?"

He said he was pondering a proposal to charge a flat $25 fee to all property owners instead of having new construction pay for the old problems, many of which stem from neighborhoods and other development built long before there were any stormwater regulations at all.

Mr. Benoit and Mr. Cohen think that approach more equitable.

"I think Mr. Dillon's approach is a better starting point than the SMART fund as currently drafted," Mr. Cohen said Friday.

But he was quick to praise County Executive John R. Leopold for proposing the measure and "starting this discussion.

Mr. Dillon's approach is "more reasonable and fair," Mr. Benoit said.

Mr. Reilly doesn't think it will pass.

"I do not see the political will for an all-payer utility type approach," he said.

He also is concerned about geographic equity. During the work session he noted on a map that most of the stormwater work is concentrated in more developed north county.

"That money is going to north county, it is going outside of my district," he said.

Carrot

The SMART fund bill offers little in the way of incentives to get property owners to fix the problem, other than not building impervious surfaces.

The only offset included is building a green roof, one that uses plant materials on a rooftop that will absorb rainfall rather than rushing it off into gutters and downstream.

Coucilman Cathy Vitale, R-Severna Park, is preparing a carrot approach in lieu of the fee structure.

"I am working on legislation to offer a 10 percent of the amount one would spend on stormwater management projects, or $2,500, to incentivize improvements," she said.

The incentive would cover new construction projects but also be available for people who want to improve their property.

"In older homes people don't do anything because it can get expensive. I'd rather see them do something that will benefit the environment," she said.

"It's like my 11-year-old, if I incentivize homework, it gets done," she said.

She thinks people want to do the right thing.

"With a little push more of them will be encouraged to do it not rather than later."

Enough effort?

Many wonder if the SMART fund is nearly enough of a start to tackle the looming problem.

The assistant public works director for engineering dropped a bombshell figure at Tuesday's work session. He reported that a loose extrapolation of all possible work related to reducing sediment and nutrient pollution could cost about $5 billion.

Watershed restorations, repairing streambeds ravaged by runoff and creating healthy, functional sub-watersheds would cost about $1.3 billion of that.

The tab is growing. Last year that estimate was closer to $700 million.

Part of the jump is due to a more precise examination of the problem. The rest is due to rising costs to do anything about it.

Mr. Phipps pointed to another story in the news last week to illustrate the need to begin securing capital now.

The Washington Post reported the University of Virginia is quickly raising money to meet a $3 billion goal.

"They have to raise over a million dollars a day," Mr. Phipps said. "Put that into perspective, compared to what we are up against."

Councilman Edward Middlebrooks, R-Severn thinks the potential $5 million in the SMART fund is laughable compared with the scale of the problem.

At the work session he called the measure yet another tax.

"The average person is saying find this in your own budget," he said. "Why do we have to pass a tax, a fee to go into another fund. We have a tax cap for a reason."

Mr. Reilly hinted he is likely to follow that line of thought.

But Mr. Cohen pointed out in response: "These costs don't go away just because we don't do (anything). Basically we are subsidizing bad behavior and passing the cost on to future generations."

The Anne Arundel Watershed Network, comprised of conservationists and professionals wrestling with the issue, say the SMART fund is a step in the right direction, though far from what's needed.

"While we recognize that considerably more funding is needed to reduce contaminated runoff ... causing beach closures, fisheries advisories and public health issues, this is an important first step," the organization said in a statement.

Activist Anne Pearson, who has been pushing for a stormwater fix, thinks the measure doesn't measure up.

She and others are frustrated that after at least three years of educating elected officials with bus tours and experts to explain the problem and the solution, the current legislation is inadequate.

"I think it is a tragedy in the making," she said. "It is a pittance and it does not charge the right people. It's unfair and insufficient."

Speaking for the administration at the work session last week, Department of Inspections and Permits Director Betty Dixon explained that the SMART bill is not the end of the county's effort, but beginning. "This is far from the end game of where we need to be," she said. "It is a start."

Mr. Cohen took a more pragmatic view.

"As a practical matter, whatever gets us four votes is better than nothing," he said. "This council will only get this one bite of the apple. We want to get it right this time because... with this council... we likely won't get another chance during this four years.

(Revised Oct 2007)