Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Newly applied Md. stormwater rule irks farmers

SALISBURY — A few months ago, Matt Holloway expanded the footprint of his hydroponic lettuce greenhouse.

Because of a recent shift in approach by state regulators, that required him to take steps to manage the flow of stormwater. He could no longer allow the water flowing off the roof to be filtered naturally by his farm’s soil or go into swales or ponds.

He had a friend who is an engineer create a plan, received the approvals from Wicomico County and will soon begin construction on a rain garden. The engineering work cost him about $10,000, and Holloway estimates construction will cost between $20,000 and $30,000.

Since going through the process, Holloway, who doubles as president of the Wicomico County Council, has reached out to other local politicians and the Maryland Department of the Environment to re-examine the impact of state stormwater regulations that hadn’t necessarily been applied previously to local farmers.

“It’s overkill in an ag area, where nothing is going to direct this rainwater off my roof into a waterway,” he said. “We are being held to the same strict requirements to what a Walmart parking lot would be held in the city.”

The regulations apply to all agriculture buildings that are more than 5,000 square feet, including chickenhouses. Until a little while ago, most counties in Maryland gave poultry houses an exception, but that is ending. MDE spokesman Jay Apperson called that practice a “discrepancy.”

He said some counties applied the stormwater regulations to agriculture buildings and chickenhouses the same way they would to housing construction or the development of a shopping center, while others did not.

“Our view was the construction of poultry houses was not exempt, and this was a plan to provide for a streamlined process for the agriculture community to navigate the requirements and comply with them,” Apperson said.

Implementing stormwater regulations throughout all of Maryland, he said, is important in preventing soil erosion and improving water quality.

“Let’s not lose sight of the fact why we are all doing this: Stormwater runoff control is a critical part of reducing water pollution, it controls flooding and it’s a very important issue,” Apperson said.

Hindering construction

Louise Lawrence, Maryland Department of Agriculture’s chief of the office of resource conservation, has worked with MDE staff members for the past couple of years since the regulations began taking hold in other Maryland counties.

Before, Lawrence said farmers had to ensure when it rained, the water coming off chickenhouses or greenhouses or other large buildings wouldn’t dump into nearby rivers all at once, possibly damaging water quality and hurting marine life.

Currently, farmers cannot allow any runoff from their farms.

“Now you have to manage all the water on site,” she said. “You don’t necessarily have retention ponds or stormwater management ponds, you have to contain so it doesn’t leave the site. And you also have to have a treatment system so that when it is moving, you have a water quality aspect.”

Holloway said that after talking with members of the poultry industry and poultry farmers, he learned the regulations are having an impact on that section of agriculture as well.

“It’s hindered the construction of chickenhouses, which is of course one of our No. 1 industries here on the Shore; and without chickens, you’ll lose some of the agriculture, as well,” Holloway said.

Apperson said MDE is also trying to make complying with stormwater regulations easier for farmers. He said the department is working with MDA to establish a uniform template. That would, at least, give farmers a way to avoid most of the engineering work and cost.

Apperson and Lawrence both clarified the agencies are working to ease the burden on farmers implementing the regulations, not to change the regulations themselves.

Most of that easing and streamlining will have to come at the county level because, while MDE is responsible for establishing the regulations, it’s the counties that issue the building and approval permits when farmers build rain gardens or other forms of environmental site design. MDE does issue a stormwater construction permit, but a farmer has to “disturb” an acre of land to need it.

Wicomico County Administrator Wayne Strausburg said he, Holloway and others have met to see what steps can be taken locally to help farmers implement the regulations without going broke or having to read through a textbook of policy.

During a meeting in May, Strausburg said, county officials sat down with an MDE representative in a two-part meeting. The first half was what MDE is doing. The second was what Wicomico County might put in place.

“We need to have some concierge process or point of contact,” Strausburg said. “Where folks can have a central point in the county apparatus and be walked through what is going to have to be done before they go out and have to engage an engineer.”

But even if the permitting is made easier at the county level and MDE establishes templates for engineering, the cost will still remain in the thousands of dollars for the stormwater management efforts.

That concerns Holloway, who had to make the same decision as poultry farmers about his stormwater upgrades. He is going through with them, but as one of two men at the helm of Wicomico County government and as a farmer, he hopes to make farming a bit less burdensome.

“This just seems unfeasible to me,” Holloway said. “Especially when we are the No. 1 ag county in the state and when we are trying to promote ag and keep it alive.”