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A dozen local environmentalists took “Mr. Sprawl” down to the whipping post during two public hearings Wednesday evening at the Charles County government building in La Plata.

The testimony offered at the first hearing often served dual purposes — to support and suggest improvements to a new local stormwater fee set to go into effect July 1, and to generally decry the level of sprawl development in the county as having necessitated the fee.

Last year, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation requiring the state’s 10 largest jurisdictions to implement the fee as a way to fund projects aimed at reducing stormwater runoff. In recent weeks, the fee has become derisively known as the “rain tax.”

The bill came on the heels of a 2010 order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requiring states within the Chesapeake Bay watershed to abide by a “pollution diet” aimed at reducing the amount of pollutants they contribute to the estuary.

Much of the pollution in the bay is caused by nutrients that are washed into the bay from stormwater runoff, a problem exacerbated by “impervious” surfaces that do not absorb rainwater, such as buildings, parking lots, driveways and outdoor athletic courts.

Ben Afroilan, an officer of the South Hampton Homeowners Association in Bryans Road, gave name to the enigmatic foe during his comments before the county commissioners.

“Who creates impervious surface? Not the forests, not the trees, not the birds, not the fishes,” Afroilan said. “There is only one creator, one monster, one roaring lion. His name is Mr. Sprawl.”

Nanjemoy resident Linda Redding called the fee “a perfect example of what we call a developers’ subsidy.”

“We are hearing about more of these developers’ subsidies tonight, cases where unimaginative, socially irresponsible developers are allowed to ruin our natural resources that we all depend on, that attract people and businesses to our county, that support our economy,” she said.

As currently proposed, Charles County residents living in urban zoning districts would pay $32 on their annual property tax bills, while those in rural and farming districts would pay $64. Townhomes would be charged $16, and condo owners would pay $10.56.

Nonresidential properties, such as commercial, industrial, mixed-use or faith-based institutions and apartment buildings, will be charged on a case-by-case basis.

The county commissioners approved the draft ordinance April 16.

A frequent complaint at the hearing was perceived inequity in how the fee is being applied.

“Why penalize people living in our urban core and people living in small houses by making them pay the same amount that people pay who have McMansions, large garages, driveways and even tennis courts?” Redding asked.

Mattawoman Watershed Society President Jim Long brought to a hearing a chart showing that the Mattawoman Creek’s health has declined in step with the growth of the county’s level of impervious surface.

“What causing the decline? Science tells us it’s stormwater. Forest land filters water beneficially. When forests are replaced by impervious surface,” runoff pollution increases, Long said.

“Really, this is a question of a problem coming home to roost,” he added.

Long said the fee “will pay for itself many times over,” but wanted to see it “better structured to reflect how much impervious surface is on a property.”

Edward Joell of Indian Head agreed, citing Howard County’s fee — which will individually charge each property based on how much impervious surface it has — as a better example to follow.

“We know that there’s a cost to the bay … and right now, it’s simply not being paid by anyone directly; it’s being paid by everyone indirectly by the health of the bay,” Maryland Sierra Club Chapter Director Josh Tulkin said.

Smallwood Village Association President Fred Scott pointed out that the 5,800 homeowners in the Bannister, Wakefield and Huntington neighborhoods already paid to reduce runoff last year with completion of a near-$350,000 renovation of Post Office Lake, the association’s stormwater retention pond at the corner of Post Office Road and St. Charles Parkway.

“With the adoption of this taxation, will Charles County refund us for our efforts?” Scott asked.

The St. Charles Cos. spokesman Craig J. Renner asked that the county “tread lightly,” stating that the fee represented a “perilous financial obligation” for homeowners associations, particularly smaller ones. Renner also said it is not “fair or equitable” to charge the fee to associations that already provide stormwater management.

Another repeated complaint was that the county’s draft ordinance does not include credits for residents whose property includes stormwater mitigation systems like rain barrels, rain gardens or pervious surfaces.

Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) asked that the record be left open and for staff to review all of the suggestions made during the hearing and come back with suggestions. He expressed interest in learning more about Howard County’s fee and giving consideration to communities that already have taken steps to mitigate runoff.

“I’m interested in the issues raised in terms of equity and how it will be implemented, because quite frankly, I was looking at this literally as something that was mandated by the state, and I don’t think really appreciated that there was some degree of flexibility that each jurisdiction had,” commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) said.

There was some question over whether the commissioners had one or two weeks before it had to enact the ordinance in order for the fee to take effect by the July 1 deadline, but County Administrator Mark Belton pointed out that the board could always pass emergency legislation that took effect immediately.

In addition to Charles, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and Baltimore city also must establish a stormwater management program.

Counting out the connector

The castigation of “Mr. Sprawl” continued during the commissioners’ public forum, during which many of those who testified on the stormwater fee stuck around to rebuke comments made by lobbyist Murray Levy at an April 16 public hearing on the county’s fiscal 2014 budget that a majority of county residents favored completion of the cross-county connector project, which has remained dormant since February 2012 when it was denied permits to fill in wetlands by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Levy cited a poll conducted last month by Annapolis-based Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies that showed 69.3 percent of 404 county residents surveyed supported the project while 19.3 percent opposed it.

Several speakers questioned the poll’s results and the logic of those who claim the connector would improve safety on Billingsley Road.

They also admonished Collins and Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) for including $1 million in the budget for the connector, double what Levy asked for at the hearing.

“It’s unfortunate, and I’m sad to believe that we seem to have what has become a BGI contingent on this board, which doesn’t behave with a lot of independence and careful thinking,” Long said. “As a taxpayer, I’m really disturbed because of the cavalier way $1 million is put here and there. [At the budget hearing,] the sheriff’s department and teachers were out in force, and for a very good reason. Throwing money around like this to a lost cause is very frustrating.”

Long reiterated that in denying the wetland permits, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deemed the project “contrary to the public interest” due to the sprawl development it would generate.

“We’ve been introduced this evening to Mr. Sprawl,” Long said. “This highway is Mr. Sprawl’s method for paving the Mattawoman watershed.”

Davis walked out of the forum after Kelly refused to cite Redding for a violation of the county’s civility code for specifically naming Collins, Davis and Rucci in her remarks.

Kelly said that under the code, “You cannot call someone names. You are permitted to say names.” She later assured those remaining at the forum that Davis’ exit was unrelated to her civility code complaint.

jnewman@somdnews.com