Businesses, nonprofits object to stormwater fees

Residents across the Baltimore region could soon be hit with annual bills of $18 to more than $100 to pay for stormwater treatment, wetland restoration and other projects aimed at improving Chesapeake Bay water quality.

The fees, to be charged by localities starting this summer, have drawn complaints from local officials who object to the state mandate that requires the fees but also businesses and nonprofit organizations who estimate that, in some cases, their charges could be tens of thousands of dollars.

In Annapolis, some lawmakers concerned about the complaints say they'll make a last-minute push Monday to put the entire stormwater fee program on hold for two years, state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, confirmed Sunday.

"The economy is growing very slowly, and everybody is complaining about the fees and taxes," said Conway, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the fee program.

Prospects for the effort are far from certain, as the measure would have to clear both chambers on the final day of the General Assembly's 90-day session.

City officials have welcomed the proposed fee as a way to bring in $30 million annually to repair Baltimore's crumbling stormwater infrastructure while bolstering environmental efforts to protect the bay.

"When these practices are in place, then we should have a pollutant reduction," says Kimberly Burgess, the city's chief of Surface Water Management. "Then we should have a reduction in the algae blooms and fish kills and we should have improved health in our water ways, which should lead to more economic and recreational opportunities in the Chesapeake Bay."

At issue is a debate over how to pay for the cleanup needed when rain water carrying toxins, sediment, bacteria and other pollutants comes streaming off buildings, pavement and roads and ends up in the bay. Once rainwater hits the ground, it picks up pollutants from sewage, animal feces and urban runoff as it heads into the state's waterways.

Concerned about the pollution but reluctant to dedicate more state resources, Maryland lawmakers last year passed legislation requiring 10 local governments, including Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties, to establish a stormwater utility with dedicated fees by July 1. The state law exempts government-owned properties from the fee.

In November, Baltimore City voters overwhelmingly approved passage of a charter amendment to authorize the new stormwater system.

"It demonstrated that people want to see a positive change for stormwater," Burgess said of the vote.

But since then, nonprofits, community associations and businesses across Baltimore have lined up to object to the city's implementation of a stormwater treatment fee, which they say will hit their organizations disproportionately hard.

"The increases on everything in this city [are] out of control," Linda Yannuzzi, psychological services coordinator at The Arc Baltimore nonprofit, wrote in an email to Councilman James Kraft, whose committee is considering the stormwater proposal in Baltimore City. "The working people of Baltimore are getting stepped on and beaten down while trying to survive."

Some organizations that provide their own stormwater treatment services say it's unfair that they could face some of the biggest bills.

Local governments are basing fees on a property's amount of "impervious" surface — that is, hard surfaces such as roofs, driveways and parking lots that deflect water rather than absorbing it. The fees would be included in water or property tax bills, or in new stormwater bills.

Around the Baltimore region, officials have taken varying approaches to how much to charge for the stormwater programs:

• In Baltimore City, single-family homes would be charged $48 to $144 a year, while larger properties would have to pay $72 per 1,050 square feet per year.

Baltimore County is considering charging homeowners between $18 and $36 a year, while businesses could face much higher fees. Officials estimate an apartment complex with 127,680 square feet of impervious surface on a 5-acre lot would be charged about $4,405, and a shopping mall with 871,200 square feet of impervious surface on a 25-acre lot would pay more than $30,000 per year.

Owners of commercial properties could get credits to pay for up to 80 percent of the fee, depending on what steps they already have taken to manage stormwater runoff, county officials said.

Harford County is considering a flat fee of $125 year for residential properties, and a fee of $7 per 500 square feet of impervious area of commercial, industrial and apartment structures.