Pr. George’s roiled over stormwater bill

Prince George’s County is embroiled in a tug of war over a bill designed to reduce water pollution, with builders saying the measure is cost-prohibitive and could lead to less development , while environmentalist groups argue that the legislation needs to be stronger to prevent flooding and protect streams and rivers.

Council members have been receiving testimony for the past two weeks from county officials, environmentalists and builders all hoping to influence legislation that will have a major effect on development, especially in older communities inside the Capital Beltway.

The Transportation, Housing and Environment committee is expected to vote on the nearly 180-page measure Monday, and the County Council hopes to pass the bill before it recesses in August.

“The environmental community doesn’t think the bill goes far enough, but the builders believe the bill goes too far,” said Brad Frome, deputy chief of staff for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who proposed the legislation. “In our mind, that might be the recipe for a good compromise, and we believe our bill is a good compromise.”

Under the measure, anyone who wants to build redevelopment projects would have to prevent stormwater runoff from escaping the property at a rate of a half-inch each hour. Under the current regulation, builders are required to prevent less than a quarter-inch, or 20 percent, from escaping in that time frame. After five years, the requirement would increase to three-quarters of an inch or 75 percent. New developments would have to manage one inch of stormwater or 100 percent.

County officials said the legislation addresses both the quantity of stormwater runoff that flows into rivers, streams and stormwater facilities, and the quality of the runoff. It requires developers to create filters and include natural landscaping in their plans.

Ineffective stormwater management can lead to flooded homes, polluted rivers and eroded sewer pipes.

“I’m deeply troubled that it only goes to 75 percent in five years,” said Vice Chairman Eric Olson (D-College Park). “I think we can do better in this county.”

Environmentalists want the regulations to be on par with Montgomery County’s. Developers there have to catch 2.7 inches of rainfall per hour when building on undeveloped land and one inch when building redeveloped projects.

The Prince George’s proposal begins with the minimums set by the state for both new development and redevelopment.

“This is the floor, and we should do better than the floor in Prince George’s County,” said Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel).

Several municipal leaders have also weighed in.

Cheverly Mayor Michael Callahan suggested that the requirement for redevelopment projects be set at one inch of runoff.

“Far too many of our county residents are living with the unintended consequences of past development practices — including flooding and highly polluted streams — that compromise the livability of our communities,” Callahan said.

Lehman raised concerns about moving forward with the legislation so quickly. The council did not hear from affected residents, she said, many of whom have flooded basements, own several sump pumps and can’t use their backyards because of the county’s past development practices.

“This is the best legislation to date that Prince George’s County could come up with” Haitham A. Hijazi, director of the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation, told the committee.

Last year, the council voted to kill a similar bill after being unable to reach a consensus after hours of debate that pitted developers against environmentalist groups.

Hijazi said other counties have stronger regulations about treating stormwater before it leaves the property, but he said Prince George’s proposal has stronger requirements for keeping the water on the site to help prevent erosion and flooding.

Tom Farasy, a developer, told committee members that his company, Terra Verde Communities, struggled to meet the 20 percent standard when he built an apartment complex in Hyattsville.

“We needed to obtain a density of 260 units in order to economically justify going forward with the project,” Farasy said.

Under the proposed rules, he said, he would have lost 6 percent of the project’s space and have had problems with financing.

“Simply put, we would have not done the project,” Farasy said.

Stories like that worry council member Karen R. Toles (D-Seat Pleasant), who is eager to see more development in older communities.

She said she is troubled by the idea of increasing the requirement to three-quarters of an inch in 2016. “I have concerns that we don’t want to be a deterrent,” she said. “We have been left out so long.”

Hijazi said he shared Toles’s concerns but still believed that the bill is the best for the county. He suggested that the council pass a measure and make adjustments later.

As a required by a bill the Maryland General Assembly passed in 2007, 17 counties have adopted new stormwater management regulations. Six counties, including Prince George’s, have pending legislation.

“We’re anxious for them to move forward,” said Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Environment. State officials have been meeting with the county about getting regulations adopted, he said.

The state has not imposed any penalties against the county for not taking action, Apperson said, adding that the state has discretion on whether it should impose fines. It is working with the county as the bill moves through the legislative process.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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