By MEGAN HARTLEY, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Saving the greatest estuary in the Western Hemisphere, as Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, calls the Chesapeake Bay, requires lots of money. And some lawmakers made it clear Thursday they're not afraid to vote for new taxes to pay for it.
Busch joined several legislators from both houses, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental groups in proposing the creation of a new tax to finance what they called the Chesapeake Bay Green Fund in hopes of generating $130 million for projects to clean the bay.
The proposal would tax so-called "impervious surfaces" such as driveways, sidewalks and roofs that seal the ground and make it impossible for rainwater to be absorbed by the soil and naturally filtered before it enters back into the water cycle. The levy would be paid by the buyers of new homes in all areas of the state, though homes built in areas outside state designated growth areas would come with a far higher tax.
"The bay is ranked as a D-plus as far as water quality. Impervious surfaces put more pollution into the tributaries," said Busch.
The tax would encourage people to build homes in what are called priority funding areas where the state encourages growth.
Water-resistant surfaces would be taxed at a rate of 25 cents per square foot within the state-designated growth areas, and $2 per square foot outside the areas. Kim Coble, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that the tax would add $757 to the cost of an average-sized house built on a 1/4-acre lot inside a growth area. That same home built outside a designated growth area would cost an additional $6,000, according to Coble.
When asked whether $6,000 would make a difference for people building homes costing upwards of $500,000, Coble responded that she thought it would be nice to raise the tax, but builders had said it was already a "startling incentive" to build inside growth areas.
"It is smart growth with a high IQ, it has some teeth in it," said Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee.
McIntosh told the story of former Sen. Bernie Fowler who asked fellow legislators to do the "sneaker test," - wading knee-high into the bay and looking to see if their sneakers were visible - back in 1988.
The gimmick spurred the Maryland General Assembly to pour money into water treatment plants, and 11 years later lawmakers rejoiced when they saw their shoes through the clear water, McIntosh said.
But this is no longer the case, according to McIntosh. Though Fowler has continued his summer wade-in every year, he can no longer see his feet.
"The water is cloudy again," McIntosh said. She said all the money put into the cleaning up the environment "is worth nothing" unless development is contained.
The $130 million from the tax would be dispersed among the Department of Agriculture - set to get the largest chunk at 35 percent - and other organizations such as the Department of Planning and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.
Earl "Buddy" Hance, President of the Maryland Farm Bureau said the fund was particularly important to farmers.
"Agriculture is the best use of the land in Maryland. We (farmers) live and work on it everyday," said Hance.
Coble said the Department of Agriculture could use the funds for programs such as incentives to build manure storage sheds - which keep nitrogen from flowing into the bay.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation says the funding would help achieve 75 percent to 85 percent of Maryland's pollution reduction commitments by 2010. In 2000 the Maryland General Assembly signed the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, which aimed to reduce about 20 million pounds of nitrogen per year by 2010.
McIntosh says the bill will help the bay no matter what the outcome. If residents and builders are undeterred by the tax and continue to build outside the designated areas, the state will in turn get more money for environmental programs through higher taxes. "I think it (tax) could slow growth a bit. But if it doesn't, then it provides money to mitigate the damages growth causes," said McIntosh.