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With the county set to implement a state-mandated stormwater management program by July 1, a majority of the 20 speakers at a Wednesday public hearing supported a flat $43 stormwater fee rather than a model that would charge different amounts to various property types.

In keeping with a 2010 order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requiring states within the Chesapeake Bay watershed to cut back on the amount of pollutants they contribute to the estuary, the Maryland General Assembly last year passed legislation requiring the state’s 10 largest jurisdictions to fund stormwater management projects.

As originally proposed by county staff in April, the fee — known colloquially as the “rain tax” — would have cost urban homeowners $32 on their annual tax bills, while rural homes and farms would have been charged $64, and townhomes and condominiums would have been assessed $16 and $10.66, respectively.

That alternative since has been altered slightly so that respective fees would be $30, $60, $15 and $10. Fees for businesses, nonprofits and faith-based organizations would be calculated individually based on each property’s amount of impervious surface and could range between $30 and $25,590.

The second option, a flat $43 for all properties, would constitute a $29 increase to the $14 environmental service fee that currently goes toward stormwater improvements.

The nutrients and pollutants washed into the bay by rainwater are a major source of bay pollution, and properties with the most “impervious surface” generally produce the most stormwater runoff.

“Why is stormwater running off of hard surfaces impervious to rainwater a problem? A partial list includes elevated temperature, oil, tailpipe deposits, road salts, heavy metals, break lining materials, hydrocarbons, rubber and fertilizer not allowed to soak in,” said Accokeek resident Jim Long, president of the Mattawoman Watershed Society.

Long was among a dozen environmentalists who criticized the original proposal at a May 1 public hearing as inequitable. But the flat-fee option, he said Wednesday, only made the problem worse, charging every property the same amount irrespective of their amount of impervious surface.

“Please make a greater effort to find an equitable method that also serves as an inducement to reduce impervious surface,” Long said.

Charles County Chamber of Commerce President Craig J. Renner spoke in support of the flat fee, “which asks every property owner in Charles County to share equally in the cost of this legislation, which, without belaboring the point, we continue to believe is misguided.”

Renner said that Maryland’s business climate already ranks among the worst in the nation due to high income, property and unemployment insurance taxes.

“This tax unfortunately is going to worsen the reputation of our state,” he said.

Charles County Farm Bureau President David Hancock Jr. said that the legislation was intended to alleviate stormwater pollution in urban areas, “so it blows my mind why anybody would think it’d be appropriate to double that fee for someone who lives on a farm.”

Hancock said that farmers should receive a tax credit, citing a study that showed that a half an acre of woods on a 2-acre lot is “more than enough” to alleviate the property’s stormwater runoff.

“I think everybody’s heard the terminology, the phrase ‘War on Rural Maryland.’ This is the definition of it,” he said.

Hancock said he didn’t support either proposal, but considered the flat fee “the most fair.”

The $60 fee farmers would have to pay under the ERU-based proposal “is not a lot of money, but when does it stop?” he asked. “Taxes across the board are going up, not just on farmers, but on everybody, and there’s no end in sight.”

Hancock asked the commissioners to “stand up” to the state and federal governments, recalling a successful lawsuit launched against the EPA by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli over stormwater regulations.

“It can be done,” he said. “It just takes a little bit of backbone.”

Chesapeake Bay Foundation state advocacy manager Terry Cummings said the CBF didn’t prefer one proposal over the other, but that it supports a fee “that’s reasonable and equitable, and provides some credit and incentive for people to lessen their own fee.”

A $43 fee “to me, is very reasonable,” he added.

Cummings said that the town of Lancaster, Pa., is using a similar program to stir economic development by digging up parking lots and building parks in their place.

“This isn’t money that is being thrown down the rat hole. This is money that you can use to revive and revitalize your community,” Cummings said.

The “major flaw” with the ERU-based proposal is that it considers a property’s total impervious surface rather than its percentage of impervious cover, lobbyist Murray Levy said. Under the ERU model, a 6,000-square-foot house on a 3-acre rural lot would pay twice the fee of a 3,000-square-foot house on a quarter-acre lot in the development district, despite the latter having a far larger percentage of impervious surface.

“That’s backwards, and that’s not fair,” he said.

Levy also said that both proposals give the planning commission too much authority in allowing it to enact policies for credits and appeals, and recommended that the planning board only be permitted to make recommendations to the commissioners. He also urged the development of an appeals process independent of county government.

jnewman@somdnews.com