How heartening it was to listen to Howard County residents urge the County Council on Tuesday evening to approve a proposed storm water fee. You heard that right – people enthusiastically supporting a new government fee.
Howard residents joined a growing chorus of residents around the Bay who are demanding local governments do the right thing for local creeks, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. In fact, Anne Arundel residents also turned out in masse Tuesday night to support a proposed storm water fee in that county. And only this past week the city of Charlottsville, VA. approved a storm water fee.
These voices are a welcome counterpoint to some politicians and special interests bent on scuttling Bay progress. Frederick County, for instance, has requested the state legislature exempt it from a law requiring the state’s most populated counties to dedicate some level of dedicated funding to fixing storm water problems.
We all dislike paying more for anything. Yet residents young and old, businessmen, teachers, students and others, came to the microphone at the Howard County Council Meeting to support the proposed new fee that will be dedicated to maintenance and improvements of the county’s $600 million storm water system.
“We care about what happens to God’s creation. We care about unemployment in Howard County, and we care about our youth,” said the Rev. Robert Turner, pastor of St. Johns Baptist Church in Columbia, and a member of P.A.T.H., People Acting Together in Howard.
Turner said about 100 people came with him to the council meeting from P.A.T.H.
People acting together. Cooperation. That’s the key, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) whose recent State of the Bay Report showed a 14 percent improvement in the Chesapeake’s health index, largely as a result of cooperation between government, business and citizens in recent years.
Proposed by County Executive Ken Ulman, the bill before the Council would enact a fee based on the amount of a landowner’s impervious surface - $7.80 per 500 square feet of impervious surface. The owner of a home with 2,640 square feet of impervious surface would pay $39 per year (5 x $7.80).
The proposed legislation also includes one-time, partial reimbursement to landowners, and an annual credit of as much as 50 percent off the fee.
Mostly out of sight, runoff is a problem few know about, until it floods your basement, or gives you a stomach ache. In a former time trees, wetlands and other natural features slowed the flow of rainwater, and filtered out any pollutants. The more we pave over our landscape, water from storms flows quicker and in greater volume into nearby creeks and rivers. As it does it picks up pollutants, and also dirt because it erodes stream banks. This nutrient and sediment pollution is the prime cause of the Chesapeake's ill health.
Several high school and college students who built “rain gardens” around the county last summer to manage runoff, and also educated about 200 residents about the problems with storm water, testified at the Council meeting in favor of the fee. They said retrofitting the storm water system, especially with “green infrastructure” creates jobs when few are available.
Other speakers emphasized that the runoff problem already is having severe economic impacts. Delaying improvements will only allow those impacts to worsen.
John McCoy, representing the Columbia Association, said his group spent $13 million to dredge sediment out of Columbia lakes. That dirt was scoured from eroded stream banks and the developed landscape further upstream of Columbia and then discharged into the downstream lakes. Properly engineered and maintained storm water systems upstream would prevent this problem in the future.
“No one likes new fees. However, we are faced with a big task that years ago we didn’t even know was a problem,” said Cathy Hudson of Elk Ridge, and vice chairman of the Howard County Environmental Sustainability Board. “We can pay these fees now and slow down our storm water, or we can continue to pay millions to dredge our lakes, to fill our sinkholes or to restore our crumbling stream banks. “
Gayle Killen of Ellicott City said runoff from developments built upstream of her have created such flood problems that the very shopping district and tourism of the historic river city is threatened, not to mention homes all along the Patapsco and its tributaries.
Many speakers emphasized an ancillary benefit of the fee. The credit system will give homeowners an incentive to learn about, and do something about, runoff problems right on their property.
“This is not a problem government can solve by itself,” Hudson said. “We need each one of us to go home and slow the flow of rainwater off our property.”
Not everyone spoke in favor of the proposed fee. Several farmers said they should be exempt, because farms by nature have long driveways, barns, and other out buildings that would be considered impervious surface under the bill.
Ted Mariani, a farmer who said he spoke for a group of farmers called Concerned Citizens of Western Howard County, said he might be charged as much as $1,500 for impervious surface on his farm of nearly 200 acres, even though a tiny fraction of the farm is developed.
Another person opposed to the bill, Salvador Cosentino of Columbia, said the federal and state Constitutions prohibit such government actions.
But those views seemed in the minority Tuesday night. In fact, several speakers asked the Council to increase the size of the proposed fee to make it more in line with some nearby counties also considering storm water bills. Michael Harrison, representing the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, said rather than setting a relatively low fee that would be used initially for studying the problem, the fee should be higher and devoted immediately to on-the-ground projects.