Our Bay: The tax credit they're not telling you about
Little-known county program can save you up to 50 percent on stormwater-alleviating landscaping
By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Rain barrels and other environmentally friendly landscaping features such as rain gardens and porous pavers help homeowners conserve water and reduce pollution. And now there's a tax credit available to help sweeten the deal.
Anne Arundel County property owners now can receive property tax credits equivalent to 50 percent of the purchase price of such items, 10 percent per year for up to five years.
The County Council approved the tax credit earlier this year, as something of a compromise after the council defeated a tax on property owners to pay for projects to undo damage to streams from polluted stormwater.
There's been little publicity on the tax credit, though, and only a handful of people have applied for it, according to county officials.
"We've had a total of seven applications since this bill was effective. I don't believe the tax credits have been that significant," said Larry Tom, the county's director of planning and zoning.
A rain barrel, for example, can cost about $100 - so the tax credit would be $10 per year, for a total of $50 over five years.
But if a homeowner is undertaking significant landscaping that involves porous pavers or rain gardens (water loving plants placed in areas where water collects), the tax credit can be more generous. It's capped at $10,000 over five years, Mr. Tom said.
"It's not just exclusive to rain barrels. It includes all kinds of what I would consider low-tech stormwater management practices, including rain gardens, cisterns, rain barrels and the use of pervious pavement," he said.
So far, just seven homeowners have applied for a total of $1,433.21 worth of tax credits, mostly for rain barrels, said Walter Tolliver, tax billing manager for the county Office of Finance.
There are some caveats: you have to apply for the tax within 45 days of installation and you can't get a tax credit for anything that's required by law. In other words, Mr. Tolliver said, "It's something you're doing on your own."
The tax credit is administered by county Office of Finance. Employees in Mr. Tom's office do a technical review before the tax credit is approved. Property owners can call 410-222-1739 to apply.
The county government has done no outreach or educational efforts to inform property owners about the credit, and there are no plans to do so, Mr. Tom said.
So it's been up to environmental groups and individuals to spread the word.
"Most of the environmental groups are knowledgeable of this bill and I think they've been trying to encourage participation," he said.
Tax credit or not, rain barrels are one of the easiest ways for homeowners to cut down on pollution that harms the Chesapeake Bay. They're also one of the cheapest, with the cost running from $80 to $250.
Most have screens to keep mosquitoes from taking up residence and most have some sort of overflow mechanism so that extra stormwater from big storms doesn't come gushing out the top.
Stormwater picks up pollutants and warms up as it rushes across urban and suburban rooftops, driveways, parking lots and roads.
Many parts of the county were built with no stormwater controls at all, so the water rushes right into streams, dumping sediment and pollutants into the waterways that eventually reach the bay.the algae blooms that cause the oxygen-deprived "dead zone" in the bay each summer.
One inch of rainfall hitting a 1,200-square-foot roof generates 748 gallons of stormwater.
Mr. Tom hopes the stormwater credit might give a little incentive to homeowners to take control of their stormwater.
"Any time you do best management practices where you capture stormwater runoff, it's going to be beneficial," he said. "Even at the scale we're talking about with this bill, if enough homeowners do it, it's going to have a significant impact."
Interest in rain barrels appears to be picking up.
Until this year, the only local source for rain barrels was the school system's Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville.
Arlington Echo and its director, Steve Barry, launched the rain barrel movement with "Echo barrels." But more retail stores are starting to carry rain barrels, including Clement Hardware in Severna Park and K&B True Value in Annapolis.
Pat Squires, lawn and garden manager at Clement Hardware, said the store has sold a handful of rain barrels since July. Her husband wanted one, which helped convince her and store management that they'd be worthwhile item to stock.
Ms. Squires said vegetable plants at her home grew better with recycled rain water than with tap water.
K&B True Value also started selling rain barrels earlier this year, said store co-owner Jared Littman.
He said his store's rain barrels are easy to set up as a single barrel, or in a series to capture lots of spring rain that can be used later in the year.
"You can save up a lot of water for dry periods," Mr. Littman said.
By spring, K&B should have a smaller, collapsible rain barrel that's easy to store in winter months.
Mr. Littman, a former environmental lawyer, said he's trying to carry more eco-friendly products - from organic cleaning supplies to soy candles. The rain barrels fit right in with his interests and his customers' needs.
"We're encouraging conservation in a number of respects," he said.
(Revised November 2008)