By Daniel Valentine
Thursday, October 14, 2010; PG20
Prince George's County environmentalists and builders are clashing over a proposal that would require special landscaping at new construction sites to prevent storm water pollution.
The County Council plans to hold a public hearing on Oct. 26 for County Bill 80, a 175-page zoning measure that calls for any future development to use special landscaping, trees and other features to filter 100 percent of rain runoff that can carry trash, chemicals and other pollution into area streams.
Environmental groups say most pollution in area waterways comes when rainfall washes rapidly off impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roads and driveways, without filtering into the ground.
While environmentalists are championing the bill as a long overdue step in making developments more attractive and preventing pollution, builders say the new rules are so strict that building in the county could grind to a halt because of the regulations.
The proposal calls for developers seeking to start new construction or redevelop old sites to submit detailed plans on how they will catch and filter rain that falls on the property before receiving a building permit. According to the proposal, when possible, developers should avoid clearing trees and leveling land for development, and builders would be encouraged to reduce paved surfaces and create landscape islands of trees and shrubs to handle storm water naturally.
Prince George's proposal is similar to a law Montgomery County adopted in the 1980s, which also has a 100 percent filter requirement for rainfall in new developments. A state law passed two years ago calls for new developments to catch and filter about 50 percent of rainfall, but allows counties to set higher standards if they so choose.
The goal is to reduce the amount of paved surfaces in the county as builders create more shopping centers, office buildings and homes, as well as redevelop older properties, said Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel, the bill's chief sponsor.
"We are basically following the philosophy the state has set out, [for the land] to be more reflective of the way natural runoff occurs before development," Dernoga said.
The regulations would discourage builders, said Tom Farasy, president of the Maryland National Capital Building Industry Association, a trade group that is fighting the bill.
"It's burdening redevelopment at a greater level than any other jurisdiction in the state of Maryland," Farasy said.
Builders will have to face strict guidelines if the proposed regulations are adopted, which are likely to cost more and make developers less likely to work in the county as it tries to build up its 15 Metro stations and inner Beltway communities, he added.
"It dis-incentivizes the kind of redevelopment the county wants," Farasy said. "Montgomery has this already. But they also have half of their Metro stations already developed."
Supporters and opponents say the bill is significantly tougher than current county standards, which requires builders to catch and filter about 20 percent of the rain on their properties.
"This is a strong storm water ordinance that will stop water from flowing into our streams and rivers, most of which are too polluted to meet state standards," said Dana Minerva, spokeswoman for the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Partnership, which is supporting the bill.
Minerva disputed Farasy's characterization of the bill, saying that natural landscaping tends to bring more value to properties.
"Montgomery County already did this, and it hasn't had an adverse effect on development," she said. "We need good development. The kind that is green. People are tired of giant parking lots and giant streets with no green space."
Farasy sees the bill as another attempt by politicians to control business in the county. He noted that the bill gives the council the right to grant waivers for businesses who do not meet the "onerous" standards.
"They can call a project up. Call them before the council," he said. "They are going to be held hostage."
With days counting down until five of the nine County Council members step down because of term limits, the storm water ordinance is likely to be one of the last major votes before new council members take office in December.
"This is an important economic decision for the future of this county," Farasy said. "It should fall to the new council and not the old."
The council is expected to vote on County Bill 80 after the public hearing Oct. 26. If passed, the new rules would take effect early next year, but would not apply to developments already seeking permits and approval.