Monday, October 26, 2015

Why Baltimore County should not abolish storm water fees

There is no better instrument to influence adult behavior than the pocketbook. And that is not only true for gas prices and how they influence driving behavior or car choice or high cigarette taxes and how they reduce smoking, it is also true for a much trickier and more complex instance such the storm water fee.

Yet the Baltimore County Council has introduced a bill to revoke all those fees in the County starting July 1 2017 and reduce fees until then. I believe this would be a mistake.

Let's recall that polluted storm water run-off is a major contributor to water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and the Baltimore Harbor. While many other metrics have improved, pollution from storm water has become worse because as a state we continue to pave ever more land over. Maryland has a fairly progressive best management practice set of rules that apply to new development and is supposed to lead to less run-off (quantity) improved water quality from run-off (quality). However, there is tons of stuff on the ground that receives no form of treatment whatsoever and rain runs across roofs and paved surfaces straight into rivers and creeks, typically containing trash, pollutants, silt and high water temperatures, all contributors to stream degradation.

The stormwater fees imposed by local jurisdiction at their own discretion can differentiate and scale fees any way they want. 
Churches, malls and shopping centers often have excessive parking with no tree in sight causing enormous
amounts of polluted run-off. Should they go free?

The assertion by the Council that unduly poses a burden on some businesses or non profits who have large fully paved parking lots that are required by County code and the argument that individual homeowners are not able to offset their fees with best practice methods are both justified. 

However, the right answer would be to reduce parking requirements, provide incentives for retrofits of parking lots and allow homeowners to claim reductions if they install bets practices (such as rain barrels, not using pesticides or lawn fertilizers), not the wholesale striking of the fee.

County Executive Kamenetz isn't the one trying to eliminate the fee. Don Mohler his spokesman was quoted in the SUN:
Eliminating the fee means the county would have $16 million less in its budget each year. Don Mohler, a spokesman for Kamenetz, said cuts to other projects will be necessary if the county doesn't have money dedicated for stormwater projects."In eliminating the fee, the council gives the administration two choices: We either institute a significant increase in property taxes or we eliminate $16 million annually in projects," he said.
No matter how credible some of the Council members are in their desire to clean up the environment and the Bay, there is no better way than incentives and penalties applied directly to the root cause of the problem.
"We are a council that has been progressive in our environmental policies. We have preserved sensitive land from development and broadened the scope of open space zoning. We have increased the program cap on energy conservation tax credits to shorten the waiting period for eligible homeowners to receive tax credits for solar panels, and we have enthusiastically supported numerous environmental initiatives. We simply believe that there are better ways to achieve our county's stormwater management goals than the current fee-based approach offers" (County Council letter to the editor).
Fixing stormwater out of the general funds removes the issue from the radar of residents and businesses and fosters an attitude of "business as usual" when a change of practice is really needed.  

In summary: The county council members have some good arguments but they don't really have made a compelling case for a complete repeal of the storm water fees. A reform that would allow mitigation and reduce parking and pavement requirements in the County code would be better and more educational than an approach where the relation between cause and effect is obscured and polluters don't pay proportional to their impact.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Original State bill mandating a fee system from local jurisdiction (that mandate has since been repealed, but the  the requirement for these jurisdictions to clean up stormwater pollution remains. Accountability for doing so comes from jurisdictions having to demonstrate that they have adequate funding and plans in place to reduce their polluted runoff.

Frequently asked questions by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

No comments:

Post a Comment