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State may kick in share of stormwater fee

OCEAN CITY — The state could “pay its share” of the stormwater fee imposed on property owners in 10 Maryland jurisdictions and will provide grants to cities and towns in need of money to upgrade stormwater systems.

A stormwater drain flows from Parkside Drive in the Arcadia neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore into a feeder creek that flows into Herring Run. The more impermeable surfaces, the more water flows through drains such as these.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the House of Delegates’ Environmental Matters Committee, said Tuesday that lawmakers were in talks with Gov. Martin O’Malley about how the state could contribute money.

The stormwater fee, which 10 large jurisdictions are required to have in place by July 1, varies from county to county. Most property owners would be forced to pay a fee calculated by the amount of impermeable surface on their properties, which prevents water from soaking into the ground and causes runoff. Only state property is exempt from the fee under current law, but that exemption might be removed.

“I do believe the governor or lieutenant governor will have an announcement about that in the near future,” McIntosh said.

Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman for O’Malley, said there was nothing to announce right now but that “discussions are ongoing.” Another O’Malley aide said the governor was “engaged” in the stormwater issue and had been emailing staff about it while away in Ireland.

The fee was a hot topic here during a session of the annual conference of the Maryland Municipal League, in which dozens of officials from towns and cities around the state heard McIntosh, former Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening and others stress the importance of bettering stormwater management in the state.

Former Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening tells municipal leaders about the importance of stormwater management as Del. Maggie McIntosh listens during a session at the Maryland Municipal League’s annual convention in Ocean City.

McIntosh, who was one of the stormwater fee’s biggest advocates in the General Assembly, acknowledged that the measure was unpopular. Opponents have derided it as a “rain tax.” But she added that stormwater was the greatest pollution threat to urban areas and current management systems were inadequate.

“Stormwater is the war on urban Maryland, if you want to call it that,” said McIntosh, poking fun at a line often used by state Republicans who say there is a “war on rural Maryland” because of some of the state’s taxes and regulations.

She also said that the cheap ways to help prevent stormwater runoff — such as planting cover crops — weren’t enough to solve the problem of nitrogen pollution, which ultimately finds its way into the Chesapeake Bay.

“Stormwater was going to be one of the most expensive pieces of the puzzle to have cleaner streams, cleaner water in Maryland,” McIntosh said.

Glendening, president of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute, said with severe weather becoming more common, the threat of flooding and pollution makes effective stormwater management more essential than ever.

“Having a dedicated revenue source to pay for stormwater maintenance systems is absolutely critical,” Glendening said.

Both Glendening and McIntosh said public and private money must be invested to create better management systems. Joanne M. Throwe, director of the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland, said towns and cities needed to think about stormwater management as a service provided to local taxpayers and find ways to pay for that service accordingly.

The state legislature passed a bill last year mandating that nine counties and Baltimore city establish stormwater remediation fees to pay for system upgrades, in response to federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements to improve Chesapeake Bay water quality. The first water quality deadline is in 2017.