Developers warn of economic costs of tough stormwater rules, say compromise can help ease the burden

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By Tom LoBianco

A little more than a week ago, developers, environmental advocates and lawmakers hammered out a tepid compromise to ease Maryland into a tough new set of environmental restrictions on development.

Now that measure is locked in a committee run by an ardent liberal lawmaker, and in attempt to break free the compromise, one of the state’s most powerful developers’ lobbying groups unleashed a study blasting stormwater regulations as bad for the economy and workers in the construction industry.

And environmentalists, who feel like they gave up a lot to developers in the negotiating process, are now angry with what they say are excessive political tactics.

The report is a reminder of how devastating unchecked environmental rules would be for the economy, said Thomas M. Farasy, president of the Maryland State Builders Association, which commissioned the study.

The study blasts the stricter stormwater regulations set to take effect in two months, stating that the measure would result in 8,000 lost construction jobs, $544 million in lost pay per year and $50 million a year in lost taxes for the state.

But those regulations would be tamped down under the compromise measure, which is now sitting in the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR) Committee.

The compromise would allow projects in the pipelines to abide by the current, more lenient environmental guidelines, as long as they complete their permitting by 2013 and construction by 2017.

The compromise also delineates alternative measures for developers who find it too hard to meet the stormwater runoff guidelines.

The new guidelines would broadly require that new developments be built with 100 percent pervious surfaces, and redevelopment projects should be built with 50 percent pervious surfaces.

The pervious surfaces are designed to cut down on runoff of pollutants following rainstorms, one of the largest sources of pollution for the Chesapeake Bay.

Local officials from many counties had argued that prior to the compromise, they feared that the proposed regulations would undermine their Smart Growth efforts to revitalize older communities by making redevelopment projects prohibitively expensive – encouraging developers to instead look to new projects on new land.

Lawmakers who are supporting the compromise – including Del. Maggie McIntosh, the chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee who brokered the deal -- are rushing to move the emergency regulations through the General Assembly before business wraps up in about a month.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, the Prince George’s Democrat who chairs AELR, told Center Maryland last week that he thought the compromise is “abomination,” saying that it gave more to developers than it did for environmentalists.

“The AELR (Administrative, Executive and Legislative) committee needs to hear these regulations and move them along and put them in place,” Farasy said on a conference call with reporters Thursday.

But the timing of the report’s release, coming just as a fragile agreement seemed near, is suspect, environmental advocates said Thursday.

“We’re getting a little tired of all this rhetoric, to be blunt,” said Jenn Aiosa, Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who participated in the stormwater negotiations .

“I wonder about the sincerity of this report,” Aiosa said. “It doesn’t recognize some of the agreements made. They’re storming full speed ahead using old information.”

Although the report does not specifically address the compromise, stormwater restrictions of any degree will result in economic loss, said Anirban Basu of Sage Policy Group, who conducted the study.

“There have been some claims made that this would not have an impact on cost,” Basu said. “If that were the case, of course, one would not need regulations.”

Still environmentalists said Thursday they are angry.

“What message is it they’re trying to send on this by releasing this report? Are they saying they weren't negotiating in good faith?” asked Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

Read more articles and political observations from Tom LoBianco here.
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