Developers, environmentalists, lawmakers reach compromise on stormwater rules

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By Tom LoBianco

Homebuilders would have more time to complete projects before they have to meet stricter stormwater environmental rules under a compromise reached between developers, environmentalists and lawmakers.

The new regulations would allow developers to complete their final permitting by May 2013 and would then give them until May 2017 to complete construction.

The rules would also alleviate what had become one of the most divisive issues in Annapolis this year: how to curb runoff pollution as mandated by a 2007 law without completely stifling new development.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is expected to submit the new regulations by Wednesday.

“We're pleased that we have reached consensus on guidance and regulatory changes that will resolve these concerns. If adopted, these changes will make legislative proposals that attempted to address these issues unnecessary,” said Dawn Stoltzfus, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment.

The final hurdle is the General Assembly’s Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee, which must approve the new regulations before the end of the session next month.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Michael Harrison, director of government affairs for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland.

Maryland builders will have to meet strict new standards for negating stormwater runoff, mostly by using pervious construction material to absorb water which would otherwise run into the Chesapeake Bay.

Environmental groups have identified pollutants carried by water following a storm, or stormwater runoff, as one of the most destructive forms of pollution to the bay.

But developers, local governments, and some of the state’s most powerful lawmakers said the regulations drafted by the Maryland Department of the Environment would kill projects stalled by the recession and discourage smart growth development in densely-packed areas where it is hard to lay new, pervious surfaces.

The new regulations would break an impasse that threatened to block the stormwater plan, which just three years ago had almost universal support in Annapolis.

The regulations would more clearly delineate how developers could pay for stormwater runoff mitigation projects away from the actual development if they can’t meet the standard regulations, or allow them to pay a fee.

The grandfather clause, however, became one of the most contentious issues in the negotiations.

The regulations that were initially proposed by the Maryland Department of the Environment would require that projects receive final approval for construction by May to slip in under the current, more lenient stormwater restrictions.

But the May deadline is unfair to the many developers who had begun projects and then been hit during the recession, said developers and lawmakers who sponsored bills this session to fix the problem. Some of those developers had already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with the existing stormwater rules for those projects, and risked substantial losses if they were forced to then comply with the new, tougher regulations, too.

But environmental advocates have been stumping for the new regulations to take effect sooner.

“That was a compromise,” said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The legislators made it very clear that was something that needed to be corrected.”

The House Environmental Matters Committee was scheduled to vet a handful of changes to the stormwater regulations Wednesday, but those hearings were cancelled.

The new regulations, once adopted, would quiet something which had slowly emerged as one of the most contentious environmental issues of the session. But that’s not until the regulations are finalized.

“I think it will [lay the issue to rest] once the regulations are published,” said Michael Powell, lobbyist for the Maryland State Builders Association. “We need to see that happen.”

Read more articles and political observations from Tom LoBianco here.

Previous stormwater coverage from Center Maryland

Bill introduced to modify new stormwater regulations

Virginia lawmakers moving to approve delay in new stormwater regulations

Fee proposed on property owners to mitigate effects of stormwater runoff

Lawmakers frustrated by disagreement over new stormwater regulations

Developers and environmentalists battle over new stormwater rules

Developers fear new stormwater regulations will undermine Smart Growth

Poll: 77% prioritize jobs and economy over reducing pollution to the Chesapeake Bay

Previous opinion pieces on stormwater rules published by Center Maryland

Builders: What are the real facts?

Environmentalists: Jobs Are Absolutely a Priority, As Is a Clean Chesapeake Bay

Are jobs really a priority?

New stormwater rules won't increase costs

VIDEO: Jim Smith on stormwater regulations
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