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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Taking from land preservation for bay program

From Tom Pelton
Baltimore Sun
Bay and Environment Blog
November 13, 2007

progress to take from one environmental program to give to another?
In this case, does it make sense to take millions of dollars that would be used to preserve forests and fields, and instead hand the cash to farmers and stream reconstruction companies for runoff control projects?

That's what the Maryland Senate, led by President Thomas "Mike" Miller, is proposing to do, and Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration isn't opposed to the concept. But the Maryland House of Delegates isn't yet on board. And some preservationists think it's a bad idea -- a modern form of robbing Peter to pay Paul -- that would undermine a successful and popular environmental program. Moreover, the critics say, preserving forests and open spaces is the best way to filter runoff and stop pollution into the bay. So cutting this effort for the sake of an unproven concept raises questions.

The state Senate recently cast preliminary votes in favor of a bill that would take about $20 million a year that would have gone to the more than 30 year old Program Open Space, which pays to preserve land and build playgrounds. The money would go instead to Senate President Miller's proposed new "Chesapeake Bay 2010 Fund." (Until last week, it was called the "Green Fund," but Miller said that wasn't going to pass, and he nixed the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's idea of imposing $20 fees on homeowners statewide). Under Miller's new version of the bay fund, that $20 million would be combined with another $30 million from motor vehicle taxes. The grand total of $50 million a year would go to projects meant to combat runoff pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. Farmers would get money to refrain from using fertilizer while planting cover crops in the fall and winter, as well as money to plant buffer strips of trees to protect streams. Stream reconstruction companies would also be paid to build stormwater control dams and ponds in urban waterways.

The proposal is evolving, with House leaders suggesting that the money all come from vehicle taxes.

Dru-Schmidt Perkins, executive director of a preservation group called 1000 Friends of Maryland, said that taking money from Program Open Space would hurt efforts to keep pollution from flowing into the bay. If land is not preserved through this program, it often is gobbled up by developers, which means more pollution into the bay, she said.

"This program prevents land from being converted into new development. So it makes no sense to raid this program," said Perkins. "It's completely unacceptable. We know how urgently funds are needed to preserve open spaces. We are millions and millions short in that fund...It does not help Maryland to shortcut one program that helps the environment to help another. It does not work."

She noted that Gov. O'Malley, during his election campaigns last year, repeatedly promised to "fully fund" Program Open Space, and not raid the preservation funds, as governors have for years.

"Local governments urgently need these funds to run recreation programs and have ball fields for their kids," said Perkins.

Rick Abbruzzese, spokesman for Gov. O'Malley, said the governor will work with whatever compromise the House and Senate leaders come up with. But Abbruzesse said the administration doesn't disagree with the concept of taking from Program Open Space to help pay for bay restoration.

"It's a valid use of those dollars," Abbruzzese said. "If you use funds from Program Open Space that restore the Chesapeake Bay, I would argue that you are fulfilling the goal of Program Open Space."

And he added that the senate is also proposing the closing of a loophole on transfer taxes for corporate properties. That could bring $14 million or more a year into Program Open Space, reducing the size of the cut. Local governments could also get some more money through the closing of this loophole, and they could spend this money on parks if they want, he said.

The specifics may be hammered out in the next few days in Annapolis.