Homeowners could see reduction in charge

Most Montgomery County homeowners will be paying less for a state-mandated storm water fee, while businesses and nonprofits will have to begin paying as much as thousands of dollars in new fees under a bill approved by the Montgomery County Council.

The bill extends the Water Quality Protection Charge, which homeowners already pay, to all properties in the county. The fee, called the "rain tax" by residents, is calculated based on how many square feet of a property is impervious, or that rainwater can't pass through, such as concrete and pavement. The fee goes toward cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large, said that while the county's businesses, nonprofits and churches will have to pay a new fee, most county residents will receive a smaller bill.

"We rearranged the incidence of those fees so it is fairer," Leventhal said. "Most homeowners, 90 percent, will see a reduction in the fees they pay."

Homeowners pay about $100 a year, which brings in about $22 million to help the county clean up its part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

"We are not taxing the rain; this is based on the amount of impervious surface through which pollution runs off into the groundwater, which is ultimately your drinking water," Leventhal said.

But nonprofits and churches could pay as much as $14,000 annually.

"While I recognize the importance of measures to protect the treasure of the Chesapeake Bay, I am very concerned that the potential fees that could be levied on organizations such as places of worship, schools and other nonprofits will unduly burden the vital outreach services these institutions provide," wrote Bernadette Englert, executive officer of the North American Vascular Biology Organization, a nonprofit in Germantown.

In an attempt to assuage nonprofits' concerns, the county changed the bill to create a three-tiered system based on the size of the organization's land. Properties up to about 6,900 square feet would be charged one fee, properties between 6,900 and 55,000 feet would make up the middle tier, and properties with more than 55,000 square feet would pay the highest fee.

Residential properties pay fees based on seven tiers, while other nonresidential properties -- such as businesses, malls and office complexes -- would be charged at the same flat rate.

"This was just to reduce the burden to nonprofits," said Bob Hoyt, director of the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection. "[The largest tier] would be very large churches, very large private-public schools."