Lawmakers frustrated by disagreement over new stormwater regulations

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By Tom LoBianco

Sometime between April 2007 and now, the nearly unanimous political support for tougher stormwater regulations in Maryland evaporated, leaving developers, environmentalists, state lawmakers and administration officials at odds just a few months before the final regulations are set to take effect.

And House Environmental Matters Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh wants answers.

“Somewhere in the next month we need to get back to that position [of agreement]. As close back to it as we can,” McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said Tuesday at a hearing called to address the problem.

Lawmakers called for tougher water runoff regulations in 2007. The regulations, drafted subsequently by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), include strict construction standards for new development and slightly more lenient guidelines for redevelopment projects.

But questions about who would be grandfathered in under the current, more lenient regulations, and whether the proposal would undermine Smart Growth initiatives, have bubbled up with only a few months until they take effect in May.

Some developers have argued that the increased costs associated with redevelopment projects in urban areas would actually encourage them to instead look to build in more far-flung areas, leading to greater sprawl. They also charge that millions of dollars would be lost in projects that have stormwater plans that comply with existing rules already completed, but have not yet received all of their required permits to move ahead with construction.

Del. Marvin Holmes, a Prince George’s County Democrat, hinted Tuesday at his plans to introduce legislation which would make it easier for projects to be ushered in under the current stormwater mandates by easing the level of permitting that must be completed in order to be grandfathered.

“I’m very hopeful department can do something via regulations,” Holmes said before adding: “I suspect there is legislation pending, perhaps, maybe, if you know what I mean.”

The quip got a few laughs during the otherwise dry meeting.

Groups representing developers and localities, who supported the 2007 legislation, say the administration overstepped its bounds when it published its final regulations last May.

But Bob Summers, the deputy secretary overseeing the new rules, said there is plenty of flexibility in the plan as drafted and the main problem has been miscommunication and misunderstanding.

“I think there’s a chasm in the understanding, that’s apparent,” Summers said following the hearing.

Groups worried about the economic hit they would take from the new regulations have not paid close enough attention to the alternatives MDE has laid out, including off-site mitigation, he said.

Lawmakers Tuesday chafed at what they said would be a drop in construction and subsequent loss in jobs.

House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican, said that many people supported the measure at the start of 2007, when times were relatively flush, but are having trouble stomaching the new regulations during the continuing recession.

Summers rebutted with an EPA study based on 12 cases of similar regulations in which 11 projects saved money and one went over budget. He also said that many of the jobs would likely be supplanted by “green jobs,” which have begun sprouting up with investments in more environmentally-sound practices.

Various developer and building organizations feel that the Maryland Department of the Environment “went beyond the scope of the 2007 legislation,” said Michael Harrison, director of government affairs for the Maryland Homebuilders Association.

The importance of the debate, with less than 10 months to go before the November elections, has hardly been lost lawmakers who almost universally have begun chanting: “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

“If we rush headlong into the regulations I just think it’s going to hurt jobs in Maryland,” said Del. Wayne Norman, a Harford County Republican.

Harrison pointed to a Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies poll done earlier this month that showed, among other things that voters overwhelmingly want Gov. Martin O’Malley to prioritize job creation over environmental protection.

Watch for continued coverage of the stormwater management issues at Center Maryland.

Previous stormwater coverage from Center Maryland

Developers and environmentalists battle over new stormwater rules

Developers fear new stormwater regulations will undermine Smart Growth

Read more about the poll on jobs vs. environmental projection here:

Poll: 77% prioritize jobs and economy over reducing pollution to the Chesapeake Bay

Read more articles and political observations from Tom LoBianco here.
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