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2006 Legislative Session in Annapolis
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by Jan Graham | 2006

Air, land, and water all affected by bills pending in Annapolis

Maryland’s explosive opening session focused on overrides of the Governor’s veto of the Fair Share Health Care Act and more than a dozen bills that gained national attention for the state. With bills on health care, minimum wage, juvenile services, commission for women, absentee voting, voters’ rights, and several more, our legislators covered an incredible span of interests.

This energy in Annapolis created an opportunity for the Sierra Club’s legislative committee to reach out to our members with concrete action items and to engage their interests in important issues.

The Maryland Chapter strongly supported the Fair Share Health Care Fund Act (better known as the Wal-Mart bill), which is being held up as a model for other states. Other Maryland bills also can be national models, if our work on vital environmental legislation passes this session. With our partners in the Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), we identified the following pieces of legislation as priority issues.

Healthy Air Act

A loophole in the Clean Air Act has allowed our oldest power plants to avoid installing modern equipment that would reduce smog and soot. The Healthy Air Act (SB154 and HB189) requires that emissions of the four main pollutants—mercury, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur—be reduced at the seven dirtiest coal-burning plants in Maryland.

Program Open Space

Unlike the last several years, the state’s fiscal year 2007 budget does not divert the funding of Program Open Space. Now, environmental groups must press their legislators to protect this full funding. We also must ask the Ehrlich administration to repay funds previously diverted to unrelated purposes.

Agricultural Stewardship

For many years, the Sierra Club has worked on agricultural issues, which are an important component in maintaining open space and controlling growth. Each time we lose a farm, we guarantee a housing development and encourage sprawl. But the farms have presented a problem in nutrient management, hampering the restoration of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

The Agricultural Stewardship Act of 2006 (SB5 and HB2) promotes programs that enable farmers to farm and environmentalists to protect water sources through grants, educational programs, research, and a task force. The increased funds must be well spent. Only by monitoring farmlands and waterways can we verify the proper implementation of best-management practices and their positive effects.

“Standing” Bills

Maryland community and environmental organizations often appear before zoning boards and similar public agencies, but they are consistently denied “standing to sue” – the right to contest or appeal adverse decisions in the courts.  This is unfair to Marylanders, especially for citizens who have a number of environmental problems in their communities but are denied equal access to the courts.

We need a statutory solution to allow community leadership and individuals their rightful role in these legal processes. We are asking  for our right to stand in courts to protect our homes and communities from environmental injustice.

Stormwater Management

Stormwater management will be a major problem as development increases all over the state. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) needs to require a watershed analysis prior to an activity to determine impacts and prevent downstream consequences. However, MDE’s being understaffed and underfunded makes it difficult to inspect and enforce regulations. We need more inspectors to determine if permits have been violated. Passage of SB 625 could ensure the monitoring and testing of storm water runoff and would encourage the use of  innovative technologies for erosion and sediment control.

Currently, all homeowners and businesses pay a set fee into the Bay Restoration Fund to cover septic systems as well as sewer hookups. Two recent bills, SB 174 and HB 276, have come before the legislature to exempt or option-out the septic component. The program will be doomed if some counties are exempt and others option-out. If all counties removed the tax on septic systems, the state would lose approximately $14 million.

Growth and Development

Healthy air, open space, agricultural stewardship, standing, and stormwater management—all the issues we care about—are affected by growth and development. How do we, as a state, want to grow? What places do annexation and/or growth allotments have in the process? Should these decisions stay with local governments—town, village, county? These questions must be answered, especially for the rural communities in southern, eastern and western Maryland.

Several examples can be found across the state. In Dorchester County, there’s a struggle over a proposed housing development called Blackwater Resort Communities; on Kent Island, it’s the Four Seasons Resort; and in Cecil County, there are several projects with water problems similar to those in Western Maryland.

Charles County’s Senator Dyson recently decried the rapid growth and was quoted in The Baltimore Sun questioning the water resources for the future.

In the town of Millington, which Queen Anne's and Kent Counties share, citizens have been engaged in a seven-year dispute over a proposed landfill that would border Unicorn Lake. The Eastern Shore Group has been an active participant, and legislation to save the lake may pass this year.

Our Mantra: Take Action

As you can see from the above issues, problems abound; we Sierrans have our work cut out for us! We need to get involved in our communities in a very aggressive manner. Attend planning and zoning, county commissioner, mayor and council meetings, and speak out for the environment. Unfortunately, too often we come into a situation too late. We can’t afford to be too late. We must do more than pay our dues. We can’t rely on our elected officials to protect us against exploding growth.

Without citizen participation, the air, water and land will degrade before our eyes, and Maryland will continue to become a paved-over suburb of Washington, a bedroom state without its own separate identity. We are a microcosm of the country. From the mountains to the sea, we have it all, and it is in our hands to preserve our heritage for the next generation.

We can only achieve this goal through the legislative process, by staying vigilant to spot bad bills, strongly support good bills, become educated voters, and elect officials who share our vision. We need to end this session with the same creative energy that started it and attract more Sierra Club members to participate with the legislative action in Annapolis.   

 

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