Three years ago, Maryland lawmakers unanimously approved a law requiring developers to do more to keep rain water on their building sites and prevent it from washing pollution into nearby streams. Passage of the "Storm Water Management Act of 2007" was hailed at the time as a landmark achievement in the long-running struggle to restore the Chesapeake Bay, as studies show polluted runoff from developed land is a significant and growing threat to water quality in the state.
Now, it seems at least some legislators are having second thoughts about how quickly developers should be required to comply, and how much they should have to do if they're redeveloping land previously built upon. A House committee held a hearing Wednesday on a bill, HB1125, that would grant some development projects breaks from the new pollution-control rules, which take effect May 4.
Legislators' qualms are prompted by a full-court press from developers and local officials, who complain that the state's rules for carrying out the law are unreasonably stringent and could cost construction jobs and tax revenues at a time when Maryland's economy is struggling.
The issue has split the state's environmental groups, with some - notably the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and 1000 Friends of Maryland - backing a deal struck two weeks ago to "grandfather" some development projects already in the works and to ease requirements for redevelopment projects to control the amount of storm-water runoff from their land.
But leaders of those two groups were involved in the closed-door negotiations with builders and local officials that lead to the deal. A bevy of other environmental advocates who weren't in the room are voicing outrage over the concessions and demanding no compromises. They held a press conference at the State House on Wednesday to denounce what former U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings called the "dirty water bill." The protest included former Gov. Harry Hughes (seen at left), former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest and former state Sen. Gerald Winegrad.
"It's like deja vu all over again," said Winegrad, an Annapolis Democrat who recalled that developers howled in the early 1980s when he sponsored the state's first law attempting to control storm-water from building sites. The inadequacy of that law was what prompted environmental advocates to push for strengthening it in 2007, he said. But before it passed, that legislation was "eviscerated," Winegrad contended, weakening its original requirement that runoff from developed land be no different than what it was before construction started.
"Enough is enough," he exhorted at the press conference. "The compromise was not a good compromise....This is outrageous. This is an environmental outrage. Let's stop it now."
Later, at the House hearing on the bill to revise the 2007 storm-water law, it got a little muddy just what everyone was arguing about. Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson testified that her department had already issued guidance clarifying its rules and giving local officials flexibility to ease pollution-control requirements on some development and redevelopment projects.
And as part of the agreement struck two weeks ago, her agency also had proposed emergency changes to its rules spelling out essentially the same things. But Wilson volunteered to lawmakers that she was fine with the bill, too, since its provisions mirrored how her department proposed to enforce the law.
The bill's sponsor, Del. Marvin Holmes, a Prince George's County Democrat, likewise said his legislation - originally granting breaks to a variety of development projects - had been rewritten to dovetail with the department's guidance. He suggested that environmentalists critical of the bill hadn't read the latest language - indeed, it wasn't generally available at the time of the hearing.
No one else was allowed to testify at the hearing. The panel's chairwoman, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, (pictured at left) had previously declared that with time growing short to act on legislation, only bill sponsors would be allowed to speak. She refused to let Tydings speak and told him and his supporters to sit down when he called on them to stand to demonstrate their disapproval of the bill.
Outside the hearing room, Diane Cameron with the Audubon Naturalist Society wasn't ready to concede that there was nothing left to fight about if the state environment department had already issued guidelines granting builders the same breaks that the legislation would provide. She complained that she hadn't had a chance to read the bill, but she said she suspected it would significantly narrow the scope of the law and rules.
"Why do they need to enact legislation if all they're doing is issuing guidance?" she asked.
Michael Powell, a lawyer/lobbyist representing developers, said that while the agency's guidelines addressed their concerns, the builders wanted legislative or regulatory changes because those would spell out more clearly how the new pollution-control rules would be applied. They didn't want to have to guess, he said, whether their projects might or might not qualify for waivers from the new requirements.
"One thing developers need is certainty," Powell said. (Of course, what the lawyer didn't mention is that by having their breaks spelled out in law or regulations, it would be easier to go to court if they feel they're being unfairly denied.)
Kim Coble, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said her group stood by its support of the deal struck two weeks ago, arguing that it actually put limits on the breaks builders would get, which weren't spelled out in the original rules or administration guidelines. Builders with projects that already have preliminary approval from local planning agencies can proceed under the state's old pollution-control rules, for instance, as long as they start construction by 2017.
But environmental critics suggested that the foundation and the O'Malley administration had been pressured by McIntosh into agreeing to unwarranted concessions that could delay and weaken the push to rein in polluted runoff.
The Baltimore city Democrat, though, insisted she had engineered the behind-the-scenes deal two weeks ago in an attempt to avoid a legislative struggle over the storm-water rules. She denied twisting anyone's arm, and insisted that the breaks offered developers would be limited and monitored to ensure they aren't abused.
McIntosh said she plans to ask her committee to vote by week's end on sending the bill to the House floor. Should it pass the House, its fate in the Senate is uncertain with only two weeks remaining in the legislative session. Sen. Paul Pinsky, another Prince George's Democrat, has already held up action on the environment department's proposal to make emergency changes to its rules.
"Nobody wanted this," a frustrated McIntosh said, referring to having the legislature change the law to specify breaks for developers that the administration already had said the law and its regulations permit. "Is it needed? I contend not." But amid the heated rhetoric and rumors swirling in Annapolis, she added, "nobody trusts anything. So, yeah, I'm moving a bill."
(Baltimore Sun file photos by Glenn Fawcett and Monica Lopossay)