The news was as welcome to the group of Prince George’s County pastors as a plague of locusts: Maryland’s controversial “stormwater remediation fee” applied to all property owners, including houses of worship. Depending on the acreage, churches faced a tax of hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
The Rev. Nathaniel B. Thomas of Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church and his colleagues figured there had to be a better way. “We challenged the fee,” Thomas said. “Once Uncle Sam finds a way to take your money, he doesn’t stop.”
After months of negotiation with county environmental director Adam Ortiz, the pastors emerged with a rebate deal that will significantly cut the fees if churches adopt programs and equipment that will curb runoff, lessen pollution and help bolster the environment.
So far, about 30 churches have applied. Forestville Redeemer was the first. They are planning to install rain barrels, build rain gardens, plant trees and, perhaps, replace their blacktop with permeable pavement. The government will cover most of the cost. In return, a fee that was estimated at $744 a year will be reduced to “virtually nothing,” Ortiz said.
Thomas and other pastors also have agreed to start “green” ministries to maintain the improvements at their churches, and to preach environmentally focused sermons to educate their congregations.
“What God made was good,” Thomas said Sunday, quoting from the first passage in Genesis. “But it’s us that made it bad.”
The topic was a bit of a departure from what Thomas typically preaches on Sunday mornings. His congregants have other worries, he said — jobs, bills and family concerns — and the environment is hardly a top priority.
“I know I’m not going to get a lot of ‘amens’ today,” Thomas joked in a raspy voice, wiping his forehead with a white towel. “The question is, are we taking care of what God has blessed us with?”
The congregation warmed up as Thomas made his final points, with a pianist punching the keyboard between each sentence: “Let us start with taking care of ourselves. [Amen.] Then we can take care of each other. [Amen.] And then, we can take care of the bigger creation together. [Amen.]”
Maryland’s stormwater remediation fee has been criticized ever since it became law in 2013. One of its main detractors is Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (R), who derisively calls the fee a “rain tax” and has promised to try to repeal it.
The fee applies to public and private properties, commercial and residential, and is assessed according to the size of each property’s impervious surface — solid material that blocks stormwater from being absorbed and filtered by the underlying soil.
The Maryland legislature authorized local governments in the state’s 23 counties and the city of Baltimore to determine the fee structure for their jurisdictions. The money goes to fund capital projects in each jurisdiction so that properties capture more stormwater, reduce runoff and improve water quality. Prince George’s homeowners, on average, pay about $42 a year.
The controversial law became a symbol of the tax hikes implemented during the tenure of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and a rallying cry for those who opposed the gubernatorial bid of Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), O’Malley’s deputy and preferred successor. Hogan defeated Brown by just over four percentage points, with many voters saying they backed the Republican in large part over frustration with taxes.
Ortiz said his department is committed to upholding its regulatory requirements, though he does not know what will happen if Hogan persuades the legislature to repeal the fee altogether.
In Prince George’s, churches are some of the largest properties in the county, with sprawling parking lots and generous acreage.
Rain that falls on buildings and asphalt surfaces washes into streams, rivers and, eventually, the Chesapeake Bay, bringing pollution with it.
Soliciting the faith community’s help on conservation efforts is not a hard sell if it’s sold as a social justice issue, said Jodi Rose, executive director of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, which educates and motivates faith groups about the environment.
“In the past, conservation issues have fallen down the list of church priorities like poverty, joblessness and homelessness,” Rose said. “But we explain that it’s all interrelated.”
It will cost the county about $73,000 to reduce total runoff from Thomas’s church. But the government, too, will benefit from the partnership. Under federal and state mandates, Prince George’s is under pressure to retrofit 8,000 acres of county land by the end of the decade to make it more environmentally sensitive. Prince George’s officials began with county government buildings and schools but are nowhere near meeting their goals, Ortiz said.
Churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are an “untapped resource” to help inspire the larger community to “do what is right,” Jon Capacasa of the Environmental Protection Agency said.
While church properties are being made greener, their members are learning about ways they can do the same in their own homes. “By bringing in the churches . . . we engage tens of thousands of people,” Ortiz said. “The government cannot do it on its own.”
Prince George’s officials also hope the church rebate program will spur the growth of a stormwater management industry that would create jobs — manufacturing rain barrels or cisterns, for example, or building green roofs.
Incorporating a “green” focus into church culture will take time, Thomas said, but he has come to believe in the message. “God expects us to be good stewards,” he said. “From the beginning, in Genesis, to the Psalms, ‘Let the Earth rejoice, let the seas roar.’ Well, how can it if it’s polluted?”