County’s Bay clean-up cost may be near $600 million
Cecil County citizens will learn for the first time Tuesday that a new state mandate aimed at cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay could be cleaning out their wallets instead. The culprit is a government program called Watershed Implementation Plan, or WIP, which the state is telling all towns and counties to implement over the next five years in order to meet federal mandates to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Director of Public Works Scott Flanigan has estimated this plan will cost Cecil County nearly $600 million through 2020, which is the final deadline imposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley. “In my opinion this is a worst-case scenario,” said Robert Peoples, project manager for the WIP in Cecil County’s Department of Public Works. Peoples says two (septic tanks and sewage plants) of the three sets of costs are fairly predictable, but the third element, which is the “urban” or stormwater plan, is much more unpredictable.
That’s why Peoples says the $423.9 million associated with implementing the stormwater or urban part of the watershed implementation plan could be too high or too low. “We took an average number to calculate these costs because we don’t have assessments done in the entire county right now,” he said.
A Watershed Advisory Committee, appointed by county commissioners late last year, has been working with staff to come up with a draft plan that would meet goals set by the state in the most cost-efficient way.
That draft plan is being presented to commissioners at their 9 a.m. Tuesday work session and will again be presented at the regular 7 p.m. commissioner meeting where they hope to get some initial reaction from the public.
Staff will be seeking approval from commissioners to submit the county’s draft to the Maryland Department of the Environment to meet the Nov. 18 deadline. MDE is expected to review the plans. Final plans are due in 2012.
Cecil County’s estimated costs for the septic portion of the WIP is $134.6 million and $38.6 million for the wastewater treatment plant (Seneca Point) upgrade portion, which when coupled with the storm water portion of $423.9 million, adds up to a total estimated cost of $597 million.
The potential hit to citizens’ wallets will come into play when the government looks for ways to pay for the project.
Officials haven’t yet begun serious discussion of how they could pay for this, but Flanigan indicated at earlier meetings that everything could be on the table, including seeking government grants or loans.
Other options could include new and higher fees.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin said last week at a meeting in Annapolis the state is talking about new impervious surface fees.
Flanigan is expected to recommend Tuesday that the county move ahead with its $38.6 million upgrade to the Northeast River (Seneca Point) Wastewater Treatment Plant and plan to connect 2,416 existing septic systems to an upgraded wastewater treatment plant and retrofit another 3,502 existing septic systems with a septic denitrification system to help Cecil County meet this environmental mandate.
Because the county doesn’t currently have any stormwater retrofit or restoration programs or employees in place, the recommendation is to start a generic “best management” practice to reduce pollution from runoff by targeting 16,722 acres. The state used a cost of $18,000 an acre to retrofit stormwater.
Pipkin and several other state lawmakers are expected to introduce bills in January to push back the WIP deadlines and to tie funding to efficiency by requiring a cost efficiency analysis of each TMDL (total maximum daily load) measure to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments entering the Chesapeake Bay and allocate money accordingly.
O’Malley’s environmental agenda has repeatedly agitated farmers, fishermen, developers and drillers in his nearly five years as governor. Still, the relationship between the former big-city mayor and residents of Maryland’s more conservative countryside has remained mostly cordial.
At least, that is, until now.
“We’re at war. Simply, at war,” Senate Minority Whip E. J. Pipkin (Queen Anne’s) told more than 50 rural — and mostly Republican — lawmakers who gathered last week in the back of an Annapolis restaurant to plot a counteroffensive.
O’Malley has long been unabashedly liberal in his environmentalism and a strong proponent of smart-growth policies. But severalof his initiatives — some of them years in the making — have converged near the policy finish line in recent weeks, riling a broad swath of the state’s rural Republicans, independents and even some conservative Democrats who view his administration’s efforts as government overreach.
The governor has invoked a 37-year-old law to withhold state funding from local governments that fail to curb sprawl. He has proposed aban on most new septic systems, which critics say will choke off rural development. And he has continued to push for a Chesapeake Bay cleanup that counties warn will cost billions of dollars and untold jobs.
The face-off has opened a new front for O’Malley in advance of a high-stakes General Assembly session that will test his power to eke out wins on controversial measures, including same-sex marriage, costly offshore wind development and higher taxes for transportation.
It also comes as O’Malley is busy preparing for a trade mission to India next month and splitting his time between the governor’s mansion and national fundraising efforts to help elect Democratic governors elsewhere.
“From Annapolis, he’s dictating how communities across the state should develop, and it’s wrong. It’s arrogant,” said Thomas Browning, a Frederick County farmer who attended last week’s meeting.
Alluding to O’Malley’s perceived national ambitions, Pipkin said opponents would seek to “get the word out. . . . He’s at war with rural Maryland,” Pipkin said.
“Does it really help the governor in his future aspirations . . . to be so abusive to the rural parts of his own state? You tell me: What is the Iowa caucus going to say?”
O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said Pipkin’s criticism is misguided.
“The governor, unlike politicians that Pipkin may know, doesn’t make decisions on Maryland’s growth based on politics,” Guillory said. “He is basing his decisions on what is best for Maryland now and in the future.”
The goal of O’Malley’s efforts, she added, is the opposite of what Pipkin and others contend. “These efforts are aimed at reducing sprawl, improving the quality of the bay and protecting the rural areas in Maryland — how is that war?” she asked.
The focal point of most rural residents’ angst is the near completion of O’Malley’s effort to develop a statewide land-use blueprint, known as Plan Maryland.
The master plan seeks to maintain as agricultural or forest land more than 400,000 acres that state planners project would otherwise be developed over the next 20 years. It would do so by targeting development in approved growth areas — most along the Baltimore-Washington corridor. State funding for school construction and other community needs would be used to reward or punish local governments that do or don’t meet targets to create more dense housing and development.
At a hearing in August, O’Malley summarized his view most succinctly: Homes built on two-acre plots with septic systems are sprawl; homes built within city limits on half-acre plots, and in range of sewer hookups, are not. The plan “is not a straitjacket for counties,” O’Malley said. “This is not a wall that prohibits counties from making stupid land-use decisions. They’re still free to do that, but we’re not going to subsidize it anymore.”
The governor maintains that if followed, the plan will reduce by more than $1.5 billion annually the amount the state spends on building roads to new developments, and willcut by hundreds of millions more the amount needed to expand and improve water and sewer systems.
O’Malley is hoping to succeed in codifying such a plan where several previous Democratic governors have failed. He is employing a little-known 1974 law to enact the plan without further hearings or action from the General Assembly, a tactic that has helped stir anger in the state’s rural reaches.
Richard E. Hall, O’Malley’s secretary of planning, emphasized that the plan has been in the works for more than three years and that the administration has extended its period for public comment. The administration has used that public input to shrink the 180-page document by half.
He called it unfortunate that critics have chosen to lump Plan Maryland in with ongoing negotiations over how to reduce septic systems that contribute a disproportionately large share of pollution to the ChesapeakeBay.
Key members of a task force, set up by the General Assembly and the governor after O’Malley’s septic proposal first fell short in the legislature this year, reported last week that to help pay for some of the governor’s proposed septic rules, the task force expects to recommend a doubling — and, eventually, a tripling — of the state’s $30 “flush tax.”
On a separate track, many rural lawmakers are also upset with a multi-state effort known as the Watershed Implementation Plan, or WIP. A Maryland State Builders Association study contends that WIP will cost billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs.
“The [critics] have a narrative that they’ve developed — that all of these run together — but we’ve never had anything that ties them together,” Hall said. “For some who want to speak out against and tear down Maryland’s legacy of being a strong smart-growth state, that’s easy for them to do, even though Plan Maryland has been out there for years. It’s been a good punching bag.”
Hall said the administration is moving forward with plans for the governor to enact Plan Maryland next month. Several county executives have urged the governor to wait and let the legislature vote on the plan when it reconvenes in January. And at the meeting last week in Annapolis, Del. Kathy Afzali (R-Frederick) urged a revolt by counties if O’Malley moves forward without legislative approval.
Democratic Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, a Charles County farmer, countered that he thinks the governor’s heart is in the right place on Plan Maryland and that a buffer is needed between development and farmland. Buthe said he does not think the legislature is ready to accept O’Malley’s septic plan without major changes.
Many depend on rural residential development for their livelihood, he said. And it should not be up to the state to dictate where communities grow, Middleton said.
“A lot of mouths have to be fed with development,” he said. “You can’t put such a damper on these rural communities.”
The governor’s efforts also have galvanized the state’s tea party. Carroll County has put up thousands of dollars for a summit on Monday featuring internationally known climate-change skeptics andaimed at debunking some of the premises behind Plan Maryland.
“We thought it was worthwhile to get some credible speakers to come and take a look at some of those debatable trends and assumptions,” said Robin Bartlett Frazier, a member of the county’s Board of Commissioners. Also, she said, “there’s an element that has to do with following the Constitution, protecting property rights and free rights.”
As soon as he was re-elected, Governor Martin O’Malley began pushing legislation and policies that made it painfully clear his war on rural Maryland had shifted into high gear. As weapons of war, the Governor is using policies to strip property rights, impose higher and unfair taxes and tolls and ride roughshod over local planning and zoning, which will result in killing jobs and economic growth now and in the future.
At the end of his annual state-of-the-state speech this past January, O’Malley stunned rural representatives when he said he wanted approval of legislation to ban septic systems in new housing developments of five or more homes. For the 1.6 million people who live in rural Maryland, passage of O’Malley’s septic ban would spell an end to employment and the devaluation of $1 trillion worth of land, including area farmland. Under the guise of acting to protect the safety and adequacy of well sites or sewage disposal areas on a lot or adjacent lots, the Secretary of MDE assumes the role of Land Czar with the final word. When one considers that septic systems contribute only 1.6% of the nitrogen load entering the Bay, O’Malley’s septic system ban is nothing short of overkill and a shameful assault on property rights.
If a septic system ban doesn’t turn rural Maryland into a mammoth land preserve, O’Malley’s Plan Maryland surely will. Plan Maryland will usher in the era in which the State Planning Department is elevated to a super-high bureaucratic position with the power to veto local zoning or simply refuse to construct the roads and schools to support local zoning plans. The American respect for property rights will become a curious relic of the past. Landowners still will be expected to pay property taxes on their land, but will be stripped of their right to develop it.
Rural Western Maryland is sitting on rock formations of Marcellus Shale where stores of natural gas are trapped. According to the Unites States Geological Survey, the shale formation, which stretches from New York to Virginia contains 84 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. The use of hydraulic fracturing to drill for natural gas poses some risks which must be addressed. But in the meantime, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are getting the benefit of thousands of jobs created by drilling for natural gas. Governor O’Malley has appointed a state panel to recommend natural-gas drilling regulations. A final report, with recommendations relating to the impact of drilling, is due by August 1, 2014. Critics believe that O’Malley is using the panel to delay investment in the state’s Marcellus Shale. I am one of those critics.
Recently, Governor O’Malley stood by and watched the Maryland Transit Authority (MdTA) approve a sky high toll increase on Maryland’s bridges, tunnels and roads that will further serve to depress the economy of the rural Eastern Shore and stymie job creation. Tolls on multiple axel vehicles were doubled assuring that surcharges will be imposed on deliveries to both small and large businesses. On the Bay Bridge, alone, tolls will nearly triple by 2013. Much of the revenue will be used to pay for the InterCounty Connector (ICC), an 18-mile strip of road joining Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, on which most rural residents will never travel.
The ICC was touted as being able to pay for itself. We now know that is not true. It should be noted that the ICC is the only Maryland toll facility where the tolls were not increased. The MdTA Board, which increased the tolls is appointed by the Governor and can raise tolls without any approval of the Legislature.
The plan to increase by 15 cents the state’s 23.5 cents per gallon gas tax is another example of the war on rural Maryland. Generally, rural residents drive more miles than urban or suburban Marylanders. Any gas tax increase will impact disproportionately on people who live in rural areas. And to add insult to injury, the increased gas tax revenue will benefit rural people least. Mass transit projects, which rural people do not use, will eat up most of the gas tax revenue. Let’s face it, building urban and suburban mass transit projects, such as the Red and Purple metro lines, have always and will continue to take precedence over road improvement and badly-needed bridge repair or replacement in rural Maryland.
Adding to the assault on rural Maryland, the costs associated with the Watershed Improvement Plan has been dumped on the rural counties. The Plan has a price tag of $11 billion for just Phase I, according to a report April 2011 report by Sage Policy Group, a public policy consulting firm, with billions more as the plan is fully implemented.
Governor O’Malley likes referring to the state as “One Maryland.” At best, that term is a cynical joke. At worst, it is a lie. Governor O’Malley has made it clear through his policies that in his
“One Maryland,” there is no room for rural Maryland.