There Oughtta Be a Law…
New bill would patch up patchy watershed funding
by Carrie Madren
Photo by Michael Shay
Critical Area land in Shady Side threatened by development.
The Bay’s austere dead zones contain so little oxygen that life cannot survive. It’s a bleak landscape, dark and deep and far from ideal of habitat for Bay critters.
Dead zones form when oxygen gets sucked out of the water, devoured by an excess of decomposing algae, which is in turn fueled on by an excess of nutrients like nitrogen. Some 40 percent of nitrogen in the Bay’s waters comes from agriculture; 16 percent from forests; four percent from septics; 22 percent from point sources like factories; and 11 percent from urban stormwater.
“We know that the only major issue with the Bay is to remove nitrogen,” says Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the Environmental Matters Committee in the House of Delegates. “And we have goals to meet by 2010.”
McIntosh’s Chesapeake Bay Green Fund, a bill currently in debate in the General Assembly, seeks to meet those goals and keep a promise.
Keeping a Promise
Maryland made that promise seven years ago, in the form of the Chesapeake Bay 2000 Agreement. Six states swore perhaps optimistically to do what it took to restore water clarity and dissolved oxygen in our waters. Back in 2000, Bay watershed lands across six states were pouring some 278 million pounds of nitrogen per year into the Bay. The Agreement set a 2010 goal at 175 million pounds per year for nitrogen.
“If you have 175 million pounds of nitrogen flowing into the Bay during a year, you’ll still have a healthy Bay,” says Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
If the Green Fund passes, it will enrich under-funded programs to cut nitrogen. Some $130 million dollars per year would come from a tax on building new impervious surfaces, where water and all the pollution it carries runs straight for the Bay rather than soaking first into the cleansing ground.
This bill sets Maryland up to achieve up to 75 to 85 percent of our pollution reduction commitments, Swanson said.
McIntosh and the 20 other sponsors of the Green Fund bill hope their fee system will also revive Smart Growth ideals. They hope that taxing less for builders to pave, roof and asphalt inside Priority Funding Areas districts where development already exists will discourage sprawl into rural areas.
Though earning dough for restoration would help, it isn’t McIntosh’s end goal. That goal is getting people to build green.
“If we never collected a dime, I would still be happy because we changed behavior,” McIntosh says.
Saving the Bay…
Though the costs aren’t set in stone yet, as the bill reads now, the fee would be $2 per square foot of new impervious surfaces outside the Priority Funding Area. Inside the Priority Funding Area, the fee drops to only 25 cents per square foot.
So for a home that has a footprint and driveway of 1,775 square feet, the fee would charge $443.75 to build inside the Priority Funding Area; Outside, it would rise to a whopping $3,550. Homebuyers would most likely pay the price with their mortgage, about $2 a month more inside the Priority area and $23 more a month outside, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Builders could trade some or all of the fee for environmental precautions, restoration or technologies that counterbalance the negative effects of building.
So if the Green Fund passes, we’re likely to see more new trees, green roofs, grasscrete concrete pavers with holes that allow grass to grow and water to filter through and paths of slate paving blocks laid corner to corner with spaces between filled with sand for infiltration.
“If you develop environmentally, you won’t be assessed a fee,” says McIntosh, who credits the bill to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Projects of governments or municipalities would be exempt.
Even if the Fund raises a surplus of money, it could not be rolled over into the state’s General Fund.
“Funds would be used for these goals and for these goals only,” says McIntosh.
The lion’s share of the $130 million 35 percent would go to the Department of Agriculture, to fund pollution-busting practices outlined in the Tributary Strategies’ 30-odd ways to reduce nutrient runoff into the Bay. For example, planting cover crops, managing nutrients, fencing streams so that livestock can’t wander in, planting riparian buffer zones and redirecting stormwater flow in older neighborhoods into ponds or other biosystems.
“The Green Fund doesn’t create any new programs,” McIntosh says. “Instead, it funds programs that are not fully funded.”
Swanson calls the bill “an extraordinary opportunity to finally be able to pay for the pollution reductions we need.”
Taxing part of the problem impervious surfaces that speed stormwater and all the nitrogen and other waste it carries with it would thus fund its solution.
“Everything we’ve done with wastewater treatment, all that money we’re spending, all the proposed nitrogen removal,” McIntosh told Bay Weekly, “it all zeroes out because of development and the creation of new impervious surfaces. We’re taking away the earth’s natural filter.”
To support the bill, Chesapeake Bay Foundation has asked 2,500 environmentally minded Marylanders to fill small green piggy banks with change, which will go to the Chesapeake Bay Trust. Five hundred of the banks will be delivered to legislators at the end of March.
… Or Driving Off Business?
Not everybody sees the justice in the Green Fund. The way the fee is collected, opponents say, puts a huge burden on builders, new home buyers and developers.
“This bill is a tax for my industry,” said Richard Howard, a homebuilder in Edgewater. “I don’ think I should have to pick up the tab to clean up after [nutrient runoff from] Frank Perdue.” Howard will have to pay the higher fees, he told the House Environmental Matters Committee, because in Anne Arundel County, the Priority Funding Areas are already full to capacity and the schools overcrowded.
He and other builders fear that with a new fee added to the transfer tax and other costs costs will skyrocket.
In addition to making new homes fees more, businesses may hesitate to move to Maryland, some county governments fear.
The recently built, $70-million Fed Ex distribution hub near Hagerstown would have had to pay over $800,000 in impervious surface fees had the Green Fund been passed, said Washington County Commissioner Jim Kercheval, who worked hard to get the business to bring hundreds of jobs and loads of tax revenue. “The bill would have killed this project,” he said at a committee hearing, even though it’s in a Priority Funding Area.
Just as hostile are many Republican lawmakers who find the Fund unfriendly to business. In the Senate, Sen. E.J. Pipkin called it “the ultimate in creative gouging” and “a shameless environmental money grab.”
In the House, Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell, of Calvert, says that the Green Fund has such significant changes pending that he can’t say whether he would support it or not.
“As it was submitted, it was horrible for rural areas,” he said.
No one knows what the bill will look like when the dust settles and it comes out of committee.
A Bill on Ice
Frustration with new development prompted Calvert Del. Sue Kullen to go beyond the Green Fund. She’s working on a bill to tax developers $1,000 per square foot for disturbing wetlands.
HB 1350 remains in the rules committee for refinement.
“It’s pretty substantial,” she says. “We’ll work over interim and come back with it next year.”
As for the Green Fund, Kullen says she supports the objectives of the bill putting money into cover cops and environmental management but her rural constituents weren’t keen on the idea.
“There’s a few things to iron out,” she says. “For instance, we want to make sure that there would be an exemption for building homesteads on farms. If people are passing land down, it would cost $4,000 extra to do that.” Plus, in Calvert, she says, builders would have to pay the higher costs, as the only Priority Funding Areas are located in the few town centers, like Prince Frederick.
Fine-tuning the Green Fund is underway.
The week of March 19, McIntosh met with subcommittees and workgroups to hash out a vote-able version of the Green Fund bill. The bill was expected to be up for House committee vote on the first day of spring, when this story went to print. If it passes, then the full House could vote as early as March 24. McIntosh says the Fund has the support of her committee, as well as of House Speaker Michael Busch. She won’t predict if it will pass, but if it does, Gov. Martin O’Malley would likely sign it.