Maryland eases environmental restrictions on some developers

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Maryland officials have agreed to make developer-friendly changes in a law that requires new building projects to reduce the pollution that rain washes off their roofs and parking lots.

The changes -- which provide a loophole for some incomplete projects -- are the result of a compromise between environmental groups, developers and local government officials. The deal, brokered by state legislators, appeared to head off attempts in Annapolis to weaken the rules even further.

The battle over storm-water pollution opens a potentially critical year for the Chesapeake Bay. In Washington and in state capitals, ambitious plans to overhaul the cleanup of the estuary already have met strong objections about their costs to governments and the region's economy.

Storm water becomes a problem when fast-rushing rainwater carries down road grease, as well as the pollutants nitrogen and phosphorus. These two, found in lawn fertilizer, pet waste and septic-tank leakage, feed algae blooms that wash downstream and contribute to "dead zones" in the Chesapeake.

Recently, both Virginia and Maryland unveiled new proposals for curbing this type of pollution. They would have required developers to trap rainwater with "green roofs" or rain barrels, shunt it into grassy fields or gravelly pits, and let it be filtered by the ground and by plants. But, in Virginia, the proposal was suspended after developers complained that the measures would add costs to their projects.

Maryland's rules were approved last year and were supposed to apply to all projects that got final approval after May. But in the deal reached late Monday to preserve -- and weaken -- the rules, the Maryland Department of the Environment will allow some development projects, which already have been given preliminary approval by local authorities, to seek a waiver exempting them from the new rules. Spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus said projects with a waiver could proceed under old rules, as long as they received final approval by 2013.

In addition, she said, rules will be relaxed for some projects where an existing building is being redeveloped, or where builders are working on an infill lot near existing developments.

The deal was reported Tuesday by the Baltimore Sun.

Thomas Farasy, president of the Maryland State Builders Association, said the exemption for projects in development would save money, since developers wouldn't need to redo expensive site plans.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was one of the environmental groups involved in the negotiations. Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the foundation, said they agreed in order to head off more aggressive attempts to water down the rules.

But the deal was attacked by Fred Tutman, an environmental activist, who was not involved in the negotiations. "I don't know what the environment got" in exchange from developers, Tutman said. "I see what the other guys got."

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