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As Pressure Increases, So Do Ways to Curb Polluted Runoff

Prince George's became a pioneer by levying the region's first storm-water fee in the early 1950s to address chronic flooding. Today, some experts call it a national model for promoting low-impact systems.

Builders in Stafford must apply for a waiver if they do not want to put in rain gardens or other water filters. The District requires developers renovating old properties to install storm-water systems on site if the paved surface around the new building exceeds 5,000 square feet.

Anne Arundel makes the same demands of builders and owners of single-family homes. And the county plans to invest millions of dollars in experimental "green roofs" on six county buildings, including a police station and a library. Green roofs are covered with soil, grass and plants.

Arlington went a step further 18 months ago, rebuilding Langston Brown, a school and community center complex off Lee Highway, with three-story high cisterns that collect rainwater from the roof, then become giant watering cans for the lawn. The building has a rain garden next to the playground. And the parking lot was dug to a depth of 12 feet, filled with sand, gravel and dirt and topped with asphalt that looks like a mosaic of tiles, which are separated just enough to let rainwater seep through.

But there are downsides to these marvels of municipal engineering. The caverns of sand under dozens of office buildings in Washington have been monitored poorly, environmental advocates have said, reducing their effectiveness as filters. In Fairfax, the county recently built rain gardens at the county courthouse and in a Centreville park, only to create soggy wetlands that must be torn up and replaced because the original soil mix wasn't porous enough.

And employing the anti-pollution techniques can be pricey.

"On a per-lot basis, all of these regulations are getting very expensive," said Bill Zink, an engineer and president of the Fairfax chapter of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association.

Homeowners are signing on for much more than lawn mowing and azalea pruning. Prince William officials said they worry that the new residents of Hopewell's Landing will not keep up their rain gardens -- and they wonder how, if at all, to penalize them if they don't. They also acknowledge that not everyone will enjoy the sight of a bog next to the backyard barbecue after a rain.

"When water comes in, it does stand for a certain time period," said Hugh, the storm water chief. "People will have to get over the perception that they have a drainage problem."

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