With stormwater deal in jeopardy, House moves to impose compromise through legislation

By Tom LoBianco

As the deadline for tougher new environmental regulations nears, lawmakers are resorting to a last-ditch attempt to push through a compromise that would ease the rules for developers and relieve the concerns of many county officials.

The latest strategy takes the compromise stormwater regulations, currently locked in a joint General Assembly committee, and amends them to a House bill which had been introduced in case environmentalists, developers and county officials had been unable to reach a compromise.

Supporters have about two weeks to get the new stormwater measure to the governor’s desk.

Environmentalists, developers and lawmakers appeared to break an impasse earlier this year when they extended deadlines for complying with the new stormwater regulations and outlined alternatives for builders.

The compromise measure was submitted as an emergency regulation two weeks ago, but it has been tied up in the General Assembly’s Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee for more than two weeks.

Senator Paul Pinsky, the Senate chairman of the joint committee, has said environmentalists got nothing out of the compromise measure, as first reported by Center Maryland. The Prince George’s County Democrat has indicated he might simply not bring the stormwater compromise before the committee for approval.

Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Shari Wilson took to defending the compromise again Wednesday, saying that the amendment clears up an earlier problem about how developers could pay for alternatives to the strict new rules.

“The language was very brief and not well-defined,” Wilson said of the previous regulations, which would go into effect in May unless the compromise is approved.

The ultimate goal is to help the state reach a federally-mandated deadline of 2020 for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. The stormwater regulations would significantly curtail the amount of nitrogen pouring into the Bay, according to state environmental officials.

“That said, it’s important to remember that the bulk of the reduction will come from retrofitting existing development,” Wilson said. “These regulations will decrease the additions of nitrogen and phosphorous from new development.”

Questioning from the lawmakers was fairly light during yesterday’s hearing, as the compromise has been agreed to by developers, builders, county officials and most legislative leaders. Many, but not all, environmental groups have also expressed support for the compromise..

Still some of the committee’s liberal members questioned portions of the compromise, including one that would open a window for localities to grant exceptions to the May 2013 deadline based on project financing structures.

“I am uncomfortable, I have a level of discomfort about this aspect,” said Delegate Anne Healy. The Prince George’s County Democrat is the House chair of the AELR committee. The Senate and House chairmen typically alternate leadership of the AELR committee each year, with Pinsky being the lead chairman this year.

Interest in the stormwater regulations has grown over the course of the session as an early attempt at compromise failed and the threat of the stricter regulations taking effect loomed. Many county officials were particularly critical of the stricter regulations, warning that the rules could undermine their Smart Growth redevelopment efforts by making it prohibitively expensive to launch projects in older existing neighborhoods.

Staffers from Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office and the Maryland Department of the Environment lined the back of the committee room Wednesday afternoon.

The negotiations and subsequent compromise have also opened a rift in the environmental community. More moderate outfits including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are supporting the compromise, and more liberal groups, including the Riverkeeper’s Alliance, are opposing the measure.

At the end of the bill hearing, former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings stood and said he would like to introduce environmentalists who had come to testify on the bill.

A handful of activists stood up, but Del. Maggie McIntosh, the committee chairman, said she would not be hearing testimony from either supporters or opponents on the matter. A handful of other environmental activists, including those involved in the negotiations of the compromise, did not stand.

“Last I checked, this is my committee room. Take a seat,” said McIntosh, who helped force all sides to the bargaining table to negotiate the compromise. At a so-called sponsor hearing, the chairman has greater discretion to limit discussion.

Read more articles and political observations from Tom LoBianco here.

Previous stormwater coverage from Center Maryland

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

Stormwater compromise still faces legislative hurdles

Developers, environmentalists, lawmakers reach compromise on stormwater rules

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