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Stormwater fee debate heats up

Proponents cite damaged waterways; opponents worry about new state fees

By ALLISON BOURG, Staff Writer Published 12/07/11

A stormwater utility fee contemplated by the County Council would pour much-needed money into the county's ailing waterways while hurting residents already strapped for cash.

That was the testimony at a Monday hearing on the legislation, which would add new fees to homeowners' annual property tax bills.

Councilmen Chris Trumbauer, D-Annapolis, and Dick Ladd, R-Severna Park, are sponsoring the bill. The annual fees of $35 on single-family residential properties and $25 on townhouses and condominiums would be used to reduce stormwater pollution.

Fees for commercial properties would be based on the amount of paved service each building covers.

The councilmen estimate that the fees would raise up to $15 million annually, money that would go into a fund dedicated to cleanup projects.

To Annapolis resident Julie Winters, one of the three dozen people who testified, this would be money well spent.

"My message to you is very simple. I want clean water," said Winters, telling councilmen her dogs have contracted bacterial infections from swimming in polluted waters.

But others questioned the wisdom of levying new fees during tough economic times.

"Timing is everything, and in county government, the timing could not be worse," said Erik Robey, chief of staff for County Executive John R. Leopold. "We have record high unemployment. There are foreclosure signs everywhere."

On top of that, the state may double or triple the $30 "flush fee" that goes to the Bay

Restoration Fund. The General Assembly is expected to take up the issue when its session begins next month.

Trumbauer acknowledged that the timing could be better.

"The best thing would have been to do this four years ago," he said.

In 2007, the council rejected similar legislation that would have charged each single-family home $30 a year and each business a fee based on impervious surface. At that time, Leopold introduced competing legislation that would have levied fees on new development only. Neither proposal passed.

Since then, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has unveiled its bay pollution diet, which requires reductions of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

Ron Bowen, the county's director of Public Works, said the county faces a nearly $1 billion backlog of water restoration projects.

Several of the county's riverkeepers and environmental activists voiced their support for the bill, along with residents who said they remembered when area waters were clean.

It's time to make them healthy again, they said.

"We want to avoid an environmental debt our children will have to pay off in the future," said Eric Smith, a Tracys Landing resident.

Jeff Tosi, director of government relations for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, and Evan Gilligan, a spokesman for Mandrin Homes in Pasadena, also spoke in favor of the legislation. It would distribute the burden evenly, both said.

Bob Burdon, CEO of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce, supported the bill when Trumbauer and Ladd first introduced it.

But last night, he said the possible flush fee hikes from the state have caused him to reconsider.

"There's a whole lot of uncertainty that's been created," Burdon said yesterday. "We could create an untenable situation here."

He said he's not against the bill, but thinks it would be better to pull it and see what the General Assembly does.

Councilman John Grasso said that although he thought a $35 fee was "a great deal," he thought, like Burdon, that it might make more sense to wait.

"My fear is that our dear old governor will come up with something to nail the taxpayers hard," the Glen Burnie Republican said.

The council could vote on the bill at its next meeting, on Dec. 19.

(Revised December 2011)