Editorial: A stormwater idea for Maryland

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The news yesterday that Virginia has put its new stormwater regulations on hold is an approach worth consideration by Maryland, where officials are struggling with mounting complaints over their own new stormwater rules.

As reported by Center Maryland and elsewhere, developers and some local officials are sharply critical of Maryland’s new regulations, which are set to go into effect in May.

The new regulations aim to ensure that runoff from developments is no greater than it was prior to the construction – forcing developers to follow an “environmental site design” aimed at reducing pavement and allowing more stormwater to soak directly into the ground.

But the rules, opponents argue, may actually undermine Maryland’s cherished goals of promoting “Smart Growth” and redevelopment, instead expanding suburban sprawl. They also argue that the new rules will have a major impact on jobs – from the tens of thousands who work in the construction industry, to the new offices and homes that are needed to accommodate BRAC migration.

Jonas Jacobson, the director of environmental protection and resource management for Baltimore County, told Center Maryland that the new regulations might halt the redevelopment renaissance aimed for such older communities as Dundalk, Towson, Randallstown, Pikesville and Catonsville. “They are looking to impose a requirement that is so onerous that nobody is going to come in and do those retrofits,” he says.

Some developers predict millions of dollars in losses – and lost jobs – on projects already in the pipeline if they’re forced to adjust their plans to the new rules.

At a minimum, developers are pleading for a broader “grandfather” clause to be written into the regulations, to permit projects that are already into planning and permitting to be allowed to move forward without having to go back to comply with the new rules.

And some developers charge that in the long term, the new regulations will have the effect of actually encouraging more development on virgin land, where it will be less expensive to meet the stormwater standards. Redevelopment in urban areas like Baltimore will just become cost-prohibitive, they say.
Some Maryland lawmakers – including the chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee – are saying that they’ve heard the complaints from developers, according to the Baltimore Sun, and they are considering whether the General Assembly needs to step in.

The Assembly passed the law in 2007 requiring a tightening of the stormwater rules – legislation that was supported at the time by environmentalists and builders alike. The disagreement stems from the regulations that have been crafted to fulfill the law.

So far, Maryland environmental officials are insisting that the new rules have adequate flexibility. And the officials, as well as some environmental advocates, defend the tough regulations as being necessary to help protect the Chesapeake Bay. Cleanup plans for the bay have consistently fallen short of their goals to reduce runoff and pollution, they say.

Virginia has been under similar pressure to step up its own efforts toward bay cleanup, and former Gov. Timothy Kaine signed off on tough new stormwater regulations just before he left office, according to The Virginian-Pilot. But developers there immediately began raising concerns, noting the complexity of the rules and the potential for them to shut down economic growth and jobs during the recession.

A Virginia state panel has now voted to put the rules on hold, to put them through another round of public comment and give everyone a chance to think about the balance between protecting the Chesapeake Bay and encouraging Smart Growth.

While some fear that Virginia’s delay is just the first step toward killing any new stormwater regulations, it’s not worth taking the risk of stopping development across the state.

Maryland faces the same risk. It’s time for a pause on the new stormwater regulations until a solution can be found that promotes a cleaner bay and promotes the kind of Smart Growth and redevelopment that is needed for our future.
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