Storm-water fee pushed

3 on County Council want everyone to share the cost

By Phillip McGowan
sun reporter
October 17, 2007

A bipartisan coalition on the Anne Arundel County Council is trying to overhaul the county executive's proposal for a storm-water restoration fund by requiring most residents and businesses to share the financial burden.

Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican, and Democrats Josh Cohen and Jamie Benoit on Monday night proposed a charge of $25 on homeowners of developed property and $100 on owners of improved commercial and industrial land.

County Executive John R. Leopold's SMART fund would levy a fee on most future development. The council trio said that everyone contributed to the problem of clogged and polluted local waterways, so everyone should contribute to the solution.

"We have been 30-plus years trying to save the bay," said Dillon, a Pasadena resident. "We haven't gotten very far. It's time to be radical."

Leopold said yesterday that based on an initial assessment by county and state officials, the trio's proposal would raise $4.5 million annually, nearly a million less than the $5.4 million his bill is projected to raise through fees based on the creation of impervious surfaces such as driveways, sidewalks and home additions.

The three lawmakers who proposed the amendment said Monday that it would generate more money than Leopold's initiative would. Asked how, none had an answer.

Leopold said the "all-payer system" would be "less serious" and less equitable than his initiative known as the Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries fund. Under the amendment, he said, the owner of a townhouse would pay the same as a mansion.

The county executive said his legislation "has a rational nexus between the fee and the problem."

County officials said the impact fee on a new home would average $1,400. Business leaders said the $30,000 fee on commercial developers would be an unfair penalty, and they fiercely objected to Leopold's fee structure.

Dillon said yesterday that he intends "to generate more revenue than" $4.5 million. He would consider creating a "step system" to apply fees on a sliding scale, based on the size of commercial developments.

"We still have an opportunity to work out those issues and produce a better bill," he said.

The issue of waterway restoration has gained importance as the local government faces a growing threat of state sanctions or private lawsuits to restore Anne Arundel's 12 watersheds. County Public Works Director Ronald E. Bowen testified that all fail to meet federal clean-water standards.

Although environmentalists have praised the initiatives offered by Leopold and the bipartisan group of lawmakers, both face an uphill fight to win council support.

Opponents have called Leopold's initiative a tax that would raise too little money to make a real dent into an estimated $5 billion bill to remove contaminants, restore waterways and install controls to curb runoff across the county. They said the cleanup responsibility rests with the state.

County officials said Monday it's the responsibility of the local government to act.

"It's a question of leadership," said Alan R. Friedman, the county's chief lobbyist. "We intend to lead."

The council passed four amendments proposed by the Leopold administration intended to make it more amenable to the council. They included exempting homeowners from paying fees on the first 150 square feet of impervious surface and expanding the grace period from six months to three years for homeowners to rebuild within their existing footprint without paying a fee.

Then came the amendment offered by Dillon, Cohen and Benoit, which drew a terse response from Republicans. The trio drafted the item hours before the full council met.

"With all due respect, I feel sandbagged," said Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale.

Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks accused the three of trying to circumvent the county's tax cap. "[The public] would be livid, if they thought we would try to play games to get around it," he said.

After Deputy County Attorney David A. Plymyer questioned whether the fee could be imposed on Annapolis residents, who already pay into a city storm-water utility fund, the trio agreed to reintroduce their amendment on Nov. 5.

Cohen, an Annapolis resident, said that state rules that allow municipalities to create utility funds would prohibit such double charging. He said he consulted several county officials before the amendment was offered and none raised a legal objection.

"This is not a substantive issue," Cohen said yesterday. "There's no way on earth that city residents would have to pay into the county fund when they are already paying into the city fund."

Cohen added that "the language may need some clarification."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

(Revised Oct 2007)