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Opponents of "Rain Tax" Flush Facts Down the Drain

Stormwater pipe by Tom PeltonWhether to keep or repeal Maryland’s so-called “rain tax” is at the center of a critical debate in the General Assembly session that opened yesterday.

The term is a catchy -- but factually incorrect -- slogan used by opponents of  pollution control fees, many of them deniers of a real and growing problem.  The intent of the rhetoric is to confuse discussion of suburban and urban runoff pollution, the only major source of pollution that is growing in the Chesapeake Bay.

The pollution control fees required by a 2012 state law are not, in fact, taxes on rain.  They are fees on parking lots, roofs, driveways, and other hardened surfaces in developed areas. The amounts are set by local governments, which often base them on how many square feet of pavement and roofing a property has, or on a standard rate per property (not on how much rain falls in a given year).  When water flushes across these surfaces, it picks up oil, trash, pesticides, pet waste, toxic metals and other pollutants. The noxious, fast-moving mixture erodes stream banks, and can kill fish, flood homes, and pose health risks to people who swim or wade. Polluted runoff seriously damages the water quality of the Bay and its tributaries.

Local governments are responsible for reducing this pollution by building ponds, modified ditches, and roadside gardens with plants that act as filters. These projects create local jobs for construction workers and engineers.  But the projects cost money for local governments, which is why fees are needed.

To date, at least five bills have been introduced to delay, weaken, or create exemptions for Maryland’s 2012 stormwater law, which requires the state’s nine largest counties and Baltimore to impose the pollution control fees.

State Del. Kathy Szeliga, the House Minority Whip who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford Counties, argues the law should be overturned.

“When this tax –- and we call it the ‘rain tax’ –- was passed two years ago, 10 of the counties were picked on, and the remainder were not charged any tax,” Szeliga said. “And, so what does that look like today?  I’ll tell you what it looks like. A car dealership in Howard County literally has a forty thousand dollar a year rain tax bill, and is competing against car dealers in other counties that don’t have a rain tax bill.”

To clarify a factual issue here: At Howard County’s rate of $15 per 500 square feet for businesses, it would take a car dealership with 23 football fields of blacktop  and roofs to have an annual fee the size Del. Szeliga describes.  An average fee is more like about $8,000 a year for a car dealership in Howard County, according to the Maryland Automobile Dealers Association. 

Moreover, car dealers (and anyone else) can cut these fees in half, according to Howard County, by taking steps to reduce polluted runoff such as planting trees and gardens around their lots -– which also make the surrounding areas look nicer.  Owners of houses on small lots in the county pay less than $4 per month, and can also take steps to have that amount reduced.  

For more facts about the pollution control fees in counties across Maryland, click here

So what about the issue Del. Szeliga raised about the lack of equity between counties?

State Del. Tom Hucker from Montgomery County, a sponsor of the 2012 law, said it makes sense that the law requires the fees for only the state’s most urbanized jurisdictions. These are the ones that have the most blacktop and buildings that are causing the growing suburban and urban runoff problem, Hucker said.

Also, it is only these 10 large jurisdictions -– not more rural counties -– that are required by the federal Clean Water Act to have state stormwater control permits (called a Phase 1 MS4 permits), approved by the EPA, that mandate local actions to reduce local runoff pollution, Hucker said.

”They have that permit.  It’s a federal requirement: they have to clean up their stormwater,”  Hucker said. “So I think all of this energy ought to be directed at getting some stormwater abated and some jobs created rather than just all this political rhetoric in an election year.”

State Del. Stephen Lafferty of Baltimore County, also one of the sponsors of the 2012 stormwater law, said controlling urban and suburban runoff pollution is a missing piece of the puzzle to a restored Chesapeake Bay.

“Polluted runoff is one of the largest growing segments of pollution that affects the Bay,” Lafferty said. “The agricultural community has taken on its responsibility in a very strong way. Certainly we have taken steps to reduce pollution from septic systems. And we’ve invested terrifically in wastewater treatment facilities.  But the fourth sector, urban runoff, has yet to be really tackled.”

Lafferty said that repealing or weakening the 2012 law would make it difficult for Maryland to meet EPA’s science-based pollution limits for the Bay and a regional cleanup plan called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

Dr. Donald Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said that repealing the 2012 law would be a step backward for the Bay restoration effort. “Of all the sources of Bay pollution, runoff from developed land is the one that’s going up,” Dr. Boesch said. “It’s going in the wrong direction. So we have to do something to turn that around.  Just like we have to pay for treatment of our other wastes, we have to pay for treatment of the wastes in runoff.”

We all contribute to polluted runoff. Keeping Maryland’s 2012 runoff pollution control law in place will make sure funding is available to improve the health of our local streams and our local economies.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Comments

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Tom,
Well said!!!!
Can I suggest that you mail this to every County executive and County Council involved, so the rhetoric stops.
controlling and fixing this source of pollution,(urban runoff) is the most effective way to help the Bay help itself!
Thank you Tom, this has to get out beyond this blog

Thanks, Jack!

We also tweeted a link to the article, and some others picked up on that tweet -- and so if you want to join in that distribution to people you know, feel free.

So, government tells developers "You can build a big parking lot and allow polluted water to runoff as long as you pay us a tax".

That's not an environmentally sound policy.

We all know what will happen to the tax money and how much government will suck up and waste.

Why not simply require developers to build their own rain gardens and treat their own pollution?

Why tax me when I have no runoff and have always lived in an environmentally friendly home?

I think Tom may be flushing FACTS. I have a .2529 acre lot and pay $90 a year, have several trees and a pretty small house. How does this come out to 4 dollars a month Tom? Why are you trying to prove a point based on misinformation. BTW I am far inside the range for water conservation (per my water bill). I dont use pesticides on the lawn and I keep my house temp at 62 in the winter. I am sure you care much more about the bay than I do, right?

Do you live in Howard County, Liz? The $4 monthly rate I described was for houses on small lots in Howard County.

Yes sir, I do live in Howard County. 0.25 acres. And I pay the same as the guy with the large lot. I also pay the same as the guy that cut all of his trees down and the guy with a driveway for a front yard and the one that uses pesticides, etc, etc.

Right. Howard County's fee structure is $15 per year for townhouses, condos, and apartment units. $45 per year for single family homes on lots up to one quarter acre (that was the figure I was referring to: $4 per month = a little more than $45 per year). And $90 per year for single family homes on lots of a quarter acre or more (that is the rate you are charged).

So we are both right. The houses on lots smaller than yours in Howard County pay abott $4 per month. But you pay more -- the equivalent of $7.50 per month -- because your home has a lot of a quarter acre or more.

my point is that perhaps the opponents of the tax are right. Do we need a tax or do we need to change the way we overdevelop and waste our resources and the way we mistreat our environment. I do resent paying the same tax as the people that don't give a darn. I think the tax is unfair, especially to people (like me) that try hard to be good to the environment.

People like you, Liz, who take efforts to be good to the environment can have their pollution control fees cut in half in Howard County. So you'd still be paying something -- but you'd be paying half as much as people who don't give a darn.

To reduce your fee, for example, you can replace your hard driveway with a driveway made of gravel or porous pavement that absorbs water. Ditto with your sidewalks. You can install rain barrels to catch the rain pouring off your roof.

I got this information from Howard County's website, which says:

"The fee can be reduced by removing impervious area and replacing it with grass, gardens, or newer porous hardscapes, such as porous pavers or porous concrete/asphalt. In addition, credit is available for the construction of on-site stormwater controls that treat runoff."

To find out more, go to:

http://livegreenhoward.com/beta/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/hoco_watershedfeefaqs_april2013.pdf

The fee is ridiculous and a slap in the face to people who do assume a responsibility to our beautiful land. Ken ulman is paving the entire county as well. They are tearing up the trees here right and left and it is a terrible shame. Where is the environmentalism here? BTW, I don't have enough money to replace the driveway and walkway, but thanks for the unrealistic suggestion. This is very sad.

Additionally, Mr. Pelton, the link you provided contains old information. No credits are available to existing homeowners in howard county for modifying property.

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