Josephus Johnson-Koroma, City Engineer and Alex Plaza ROA Projects and Environmental Coordinator
Storm water management is about clean water and not just about flooding explained Roanoke city manager Chris Morrill at city council’s Monday work session. If Roanoke City takes no action an Environmental Protection Agency audit could result in a fine as several city’s like Lynchburg have already encountered.
The subject has been stewing in the pot since 2009. A formula for assessing property fees on residential and commercial property at that time was discussed. In those earlier work sessions a $3 per month fee was proposed for residential property and a $3 per 1920 square feet of impervious surface for commercial property.
To make it more fair and still come up with the $4.1 million annual expense to the city a new formula was proposed Monday that hit city council’s sweet spot of acceptance.
That formula is based on each 500 square foot of impervious service for both residential and commercial property. Not only is it the square footage of a home but it also includes surfaces like driveways and cement patios and other buildings that may dot a resident’s property. The calculation will be based on something like 85 – 90 cents per 500 square feet. The new calculation will have about the same annual cost said Phil Shermer, Roanoke City engineer.
Shermer was looking for a final decision by council and an ordinance by September. By using overhead GIS software the impervious surface of every property can be calculated by November. Fees would take effect on July 1, 2014.
The goal is to incentivize property owners to mitigate water runoff by, for example, using rain barrels and/or retrofitting impervious parking lots with pervious pavers. By doing that as much as a 50% credit could be applied toward the property owner’s fee.
Councilman Dave Trinkle suggested that the fees on large commercial properties should be phased in and include a fee cap.
City Manager Chris Morrill said, “if we were a business in 2010 knowing this was coming we would have started preparing for it. In terms of phasing in, we can work on a phase in … but we need to get to that $4 million.”
Morrill said when the EPA comes to audit the city’s water quality they need to see that Roanoke is making a “good faith effort” to comply. If fees are capped there is no incentive for businesses to put in any of the storm water improvements he said.
Council still decided on a phased approach over a 2 to 3 year period. The fee will be tacked on to citizens real estate bill.
History of council work sessions on the impending EPA regulations:
In July of 2009 it was suggested that a fund be set up to accumulate the $60 million dollars to correct Roanoke’s decaying drainage infrastructure (today it is more like $70 million). Shermer warned then that the city could face fines.
In spite of the warning no action was taken as City Council decided that in the middle of a recession citizens and businesses could not be further stressed with a storm water utility fee.
In July 2011 another warning from Chris Blakeman, Roanoke City’s Environmental Manager and Phil Shermer.
They explained that since 2003 localities under a population of 100,000 must comply with a state-issued Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4) permit. An MSR4 permit requires that the city assess and control all pollution sources and perform bi-annual “first flush” sampling of city-owned property.
The degradation of water quality comes from “everyday human living – from litter, fertilizer, oil, pesticides, soil erosion, air and heavy metal,” explained Blakeman. Once Roanoke hits over 100,000 in population even stricter controls come into play. People need to know “this is the new normal.”
All sources of water from the Roanoke River Watershed are assigned a percentage of the Waste Load Allocation (WLA). Roanoke has seven percent of that load as part of the upper basin of the Roanoke River Watershed encompassing 500 square miles.
Roanoke has thirteen major watersheds in the city and thirteen 100-year floodplains. Each watershed has a stream associated with it. Seven of these are impaired according to the DEQ. They include the Roanoke River, Lick Run, Peters Creek, Tinker Creek and Trout Run according to Shermer.
Impairment is a measure of sediment load and bacteria like E. coli, copper, zinc and arsenic. “If you take care of sediment you take care of all the other things,” said Shermer. Sediment comes from development sites and impervious surfaces like parking lots. Getting rid of the sediment before it hits the drains is key. The goal is to get the streams off the impaired list he said.
Roanoke is over its allowable sediment limit by 483 tons and needs to go on a “pollution diet.” That diet comes with cost in personal, ongoing maintenance, administration of permits, equipment and supplies. There is no funding source for the anticipated annual cost of over $1 million. That doesn’t include capital costs.
Shermer said, “The beauty of the storm water utility fee is that it is proportional to the runoff contribution that each property makes.”
Several large commercial landowners and businesses have formed a group to monitor the issue. Representatives made the point that, ”any new tax disguised as a fee would have to be passed on to consumers and tenants and would greatly impact economic development potential in Roanoke.”
Councilman Sherman Lea and Bill Bestpitch wanted a more tiered approach in January. Vice Mayor Court Rosen and Councilman Dave Trinkle favored a flat $36 yearly fee for every resident.
Even the Roanoke airport that claims the largest impervious surface area in Roanoke won’t be immune. Other localities like Alexandria and Fairfax counties have implemented a real estate tax. Richmond has taken a tiered fee approach.
Virginia’s DEQ assesses the streams and the Virginia Department of Recreation and Conservation enforces the regulations. The Roanoke Valley’s unique geographical features create a “funnel effect.” Water from the Roanoke River flows to the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina.
On the plus side Roanoke has separate stormwater and sewer systems, though there are still septic tanks and open ditches and culverts in the city. Another plus might be that new businesses will be created to perform pollution testing for area businesses.
The intent of stormwater management is to also address the two and ten-year floods. The 1985 type 100-year events are not controllable.
There are thousands of inlets and pipes in the city that need to be looked at every six months. Pipes are needed where there are none and in 2011 Shermer said there were 367 existing pipes that discharge into a stream or river. Every pipe will be regulated for pollutant load.
There are over 200 stormwater projects Valleywide and resources simply aren’t available for all of it and ” you just can’t build your way out of it … this is a program that never ends,” said Morrill.
“If you look at the larger purpose of what we are trying to do. That’s to improve water quality and to get it so our streams and rivers are in good ecological condition so we can enjoy them as a resource and we don’t have to worry when swimming in it or eating the fish out of it . . . Though it looks clean it really is not,” said Shermer
Posted By Valerie Garner
Categories: Politics, Roanoke City Politics
Tags: city_council, environment, study