Frederick Co. considers fighting state ‘rain tax’ law in court

The county is considering a legal battle against the state to avoid charging property owners for runoff cleanup efforts.

Newly passed Maryland legislation that would require Frederick County to levy a stormwater remediation charge has drawn the ire of county commissioners, who are now exploring ways to resist the potential mandate.

For the fee to fund a water cleanup plan developed by the state, each local property owner would have to pitch in $181 per year until 2025, according to rough county estimates.

Rather than craft a new fee, Commissioners President Blaine Young said, the county might take legal action. He also might ask the nine other jurisdictions affected by the bill to join the action against what he and other local officials call a “rain tax.”

Outside of the courtroom, county leaders could refuse to create the fee or establish one but set the rate at zero, he said.

The Maryland General Assembly passed the stormwater bill in the final moments of the 2012 session, and the legislation awaits the governor’s signature.

The county made its estimates assuming the new fee would completely pay for runoff cleanup, but the bill gives local officials wide latitude in the structure and amount of the charge. Rather than distributing costs equally across county property owners, commissioners could opt to base the fee on square footage of roofs and blacktop.

The revenue would help pay for green practices to cleanse the water that flows from Frederick County into local streams and rivers, and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay.

Local officials have loudly objected that the state’s plan to reduce pollution in the bay would come at an astronomical expense. Until recently, Frederick County calculated that its cleanup costs would total $2.35 billion by 2025.

That number changed early this month after the Maryland Department of the Environment decided to allow the county to use cheaper cleanup methods, such as tree planting and creating grass buffers, in addition to more costly structural projects. With this alteration, the state believes the plan will cost the county closer to $200 million.

Jack Lynch, a member of the Monocacy Scenic River Citizens Advisory Board, said he thinks the new figures are still too high. The state’s pollution reduction goals are not set in stone and could change if they prove too onerous, he said. The important thing is that Frederick County shows movement in the right direction.

“This is not a huge burden if you approach it right,” Lynch said.

Young, however, said he thinks county taxpayers should not have to shoulder any burden for the waterways pollution until more scientific evidence shows the cleanup methods will work.

The county board has instructed staff to look at the legal implications of refusing to follow a state directive to create a stormwater fee.

“If we have to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars or even more to defend against a $200 million plan, I would think our taxpayers would think it’s worth it,” Young said.

Commissioner Paul Smith said he is undecided whether the county should seek relief in court, although he considers this as an option.

Delegate Galen Clagett, who supported the bill, said he does not foresee much success for the county in court.

“If we fight, we’re going to spend a whole bunch of money, and it will cost us more time,” he said. “Let’s just do the right thing for the bay.”

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