Chesterfield Confronts Cost of Addressing Storm Water Runoff

Virginia Tech bioretention project

Virginia Tech bioretention project

by James A. Bacon

Chesterfield County businesses could wind up paying $308 per year on average to fund the county’s $35 million stormwater utility program, while single-family households could be tagged with $24 per year, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Needless to say, a lot of people are unhappy with the prospect of a new fee. “It is very unfair that we have to deal with it,” said Steve A. Elswick, board chairman. But noncompliance is not an option. “There have been questions about what if we just don’t do it. Unfortunately we’ll be faced with civil liabilities and criminal charges against the county administrator.” Public hearings on the plan are scheduled in March.

As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I’m not a fan of new taxes and government-mandated fees that look and feel like taxes. I believe in smaller, less intrusive government. But if a new tax or fee is justified, the stormwater utility program probably is it.

First off, the burden of establishing a serious stormwater management plan has been working its way through the legislative and regulatory system for a decade or longer. Every local government has known it was coming and has had years to prepare. The fact is, stormwater runoff  imposes significant economic costs. It causes erosion and puts sediment into rivers and streams, it picks up nitrogen and phosphates which contribute to destructive algae blooms, and it carries toxic chemicals from roads and parking lots into the watershed. The end result is significant environmental degradation to Virginia’s streams, rivers and Chesapeake Bay, which causes economic harm to the recreation and fishing industries (to say nothing of the harm done to the wildlife).

Second, the most appropriate way to pay for mitigating stormwater runoff is with a user fee. People should pay in direct proportion to the harm they cause, as measured by the square footage of impermeable surface on their property such as roof tops, driveways, patios and parking areas. That means large retailers with sprawling parking lots would pay the most, as appears to be the case in the Chesterfield plan. Insofar as county roads contribute to runoff, it may be justifiable for a proportionate share of program costs to come from general county funds.

How much will the program cost businesses? Many will pay less than the $308 average, Scott Smedley, director of Environmental Engineering, told the board of directors. And some will pay a lot more. “There is a small percentage on top, large facilities, that have really high bill, so that kind of skews that average.”

I haven’t seen the Chesterfield plan, so I don’t know the details of how the fees are structured. But in an ideal world (ideal from my perspective, at least), businesses should be rewarded through a reduction in fees if they reduce the square footage of impervious surface. One thing the county could do is to relax minimum parking mandates that compel businesses to maintain more parking spaces than they need or want. Indeed, every jurisdiction in Virginia should repeal their parking minimums.

Meanwhile, in General Assembly action, funding for stormwater runoff has become a budgetary issue. The McAuliffe administration’s proposed budget would cut the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which provides matching funds to local stormwater-cleanup initiatives, to zero. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is backing budget amendments that would provide $50 million over each of the next two years. A separate measure would streamline statutory programs to help localities better manage their runoff programs.

Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is an environmental and economic imperative. While some may be impatient at the slow pace of progress, the Bay ecology is improving. It took decades to ruin the Bay and it will decades to restore its full potential. Virginia is pursuing a reasonable, slow-but-steady approach that is fiscally and politically sustainable.

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22 responses to “Chesterfield Confronts Cost of Addressing Storm Water Runoff

  1. I don’t know why the GA will not enable localities to institute a bag tax. It would cut down on storm water pollution and help raise funds. But we’re a Dillon Rule state with the big Gov’t in Richmond not fond of local control.

    • well .. truth be known how many localities would even require any storm water facilities at all much less fees , without the state and feds forcing them to?

      but GEEZE –
      gee… I’m shocked – SHOCKED that Jim does not take the same view as he does with pollution from electricity generation and joint with the anti-CPP blatherbutts in complaints!

      yes – cutting coal pollution IS going to cost money – and yes we KNOW there are significant economic costs due to coal pollution!

      there is no sugar-coating to the stormwater fees and costs – they all will roll down to people – the businesses will fold those costs into their prices…that you and I pay for goods and services – no question about it and that takes some of the fruits of our production away from us – right? same deal with the costs of cutting coal pollution… right?

      but if someone can make a successful argument for the real dollar damage to the Bay and our role in it and in turn our responsibility to not use the bay to subsidize us – that those costs are real and they do belong to us…

      then why do we not take the same approach to fossil fuel pollution and the CPP which seeks to reduce that pollution and the attendant economic costs to health?

      It’s hard for people to accept that the damage is real just from looking at numbers in reports and even harder for them to have to fork over real dollars to “fix” it – especially these days when many folks suspect the money is squandered and not delivering what we pay for but that’s a separate question.

      we ALREADY pay when stores build storm ponds – they tack that cost onto goods and services we purchase!

      there are really TWO aspects to stormwater. The first is just the sheer volume that runs off – it could be totally just clean water and the harm from the volume would be the same.

      the SECOND part is that what’s IN the runoff – and that’s the problem. It’s the stuff that’s collected on the parking lots or picked up on it’s way to the creeks… and that includes sediments… fertilizer, pet poop, etc… a toxic brew that is literally crapping up the Bay!

      so perhaps a PERFECT WIN-WIN synergistic solution for businesses – would be to COVER their impervious surfaces parking lots with SOLAR panels and to then SELL that CLEAN power back to DVP so that less pollution is generated from fossil fuels.

      GADZOOKS!!!

      can it really be that simple? I bet not.

      😉

      and gee – if it works for businesses could it also work that way for VDOT and roads? or for that matter – homeowners… put in solar panels – pay your stormwater, reduce both air and water pollution… !!!

      finally – these are opportunities for entrepreneurs , income and job producing opportunities – in much the same way that water treatment plants provide jobs and anti-pollution equipment provide jobs!

  2. Only $2 a month residential? Gee, it’s $4 a month in Lynchburg.

  3. and that’s likely what the CPP would cost Va ratepayers… much ado about nothing.

  4. This is another example of where poor initial design results in greater expense later on to cure the symptoms of the bad initial decisions. Covering much of our land with impermeable surfaces replaced the natural percolation and aquifer recharge that historically occurred. We replaced small scale dispersed runoff of clean water with a huge collection system resulting in massive flows of contaminated water during rainstorms.

    Now we need to install numerous small scale water catchment plantings that will capture and retain the water and avoid storm water overflows to our watersheds. This is being done by a private group in Arizona for minimal expense. They are cutting small sections of the curb in appropriate places to intercept water from going to the storm drains. Water retaining beds are planted with appropriate vegetation. They don’t often have rain, but when they do they are gully washers. Now small amounts of water are intercepted in numerous locations. The water nourishes the vegetation, avoids the need for irrigation, cools and beautifies the neighborhood, all for minimal cost.

    We are using similar techniques in our local public park that abuts a river flowing through the area. Contaminated runoff from the parking lot no longer enters the stream. Volunteers assisted city workers with the planting and now the area is cleaner and even more beautiful. Huge, big box parking lots could be dealt with in the same way.

  5. JAB – every use must park itself. That is a fundamental principle of land use. If a store has less parking than needed to serve its customers, those customers are going to park in another business’ lot; neighborhood streets; or multi-family housing parking lots.

    Fairfax County has created a storm water service district and is taxing everyone for storm water treatment and related programs. The County, for example, has taken over maintenance for HOA storm water facilities to improve performance. Sanitary sewer charges have jumped dramatically to reduce pollution into the Bay. Any rezoning requires storm water management improvements. What the County has pulled back on is pushing for parking lots with impervious pavers or other materials. The yearly maintenance costs are too high.

  6. There is no criterion for when the Bay is ok, so that stormwater runoff can be judged ok. An environmentalist who works in the field told me that the Bay would be ok when it is in its pristine condition (i.e., before humans were created) — a condition for which we have no data. Without a criterion, the cost of cleanup is infinite. A more serious problem, for which data is available, is the concentration of hormones in the Bay water. The hormones are in the urine of those using The Pill (or pills?). Fish are known to be affected. Who knows the effects of our drinking the water.
    If the runoff culprit pays in proportion to the damage done — as I agree he should, having the state pay for any part of the remediation contradicts this policy. However, permeable surface is too crude because credit should be given for offsets (rain gardens, runoff ponds, etc.).

    • Also Roundup, the herbicide so widely used in commercial agriculture, front lawns, parks, etc. is a known endocrine disruptor. It is washed into our watersheds in huge amounts. This affects the aquatic systems as well as our plant and animal food sources.

  7. re: ” Without a criterion, the cost of cleanup is infinite.”

    there IS criterion – it’s called TMDL.

    ” A more serious problem, for which data is available, is the concentration of hormones in the Bay water. The hormones are in the urine of those using The Pill (or pills?). Fish are known to be affected. Who knows the effects of our drinking the water.”

    yes – it’s a huge issue that has almost nothing to do with storm water and everything to do with sewage treatment plants.

    the irony is that such hormones are effectively sequestered and rendered harmless in septic tank/drainfields… they (so far) never get beyond getting screened in soil layers just as raw household sewage itself is “treated” by soil filtering and emerges in the groundwater below – as potable and fit to drink – most wells are situated within a hundred feet of the drainfield.

    credit IS given for those things – to the degree they are effective but not to the degree that they are insufficient to meet standards.

    nothing keeps you from doing these things – but what comes out the other end of them has to meet specs for volume and contamination.

    just sequestering some level of volume such as a 2yr storm event – does not meet the standards for a 10 year storm event where volume might triple so , in effect your storm pond works until it “fails” at the higher volume thresholds.

  8. as with virtually ALL permits …

    they do not say the storm pond has to contain ALL storm events including floods…

    and they do not say you cannot release ANY contaminates at all ..

    the permits say what the LIMITS are …

    so your permit might say that you have to hold back a 2yr or 5yr storm event – which would be the statistical volume that is associated with the rainfall associated with that storm event.

    similarly – the permit would not say you could ot release ANY … say roundup or absolutely no dog poop.

    Like NDPES permits – each contaminate has a threshold limit .. usually so many grams per volume unit , etc.

    these permits are, in turn, tied to overall TMDL threshold limits for a given watershed or location within that watershed.

    and that’s where the rub comes… when the state dictates to the locality – what those threshold and limits are when engineering the facilities to meet the performance standards required to conform to the limits and thresholds.

    so a business goes to an environmental engineering firm and says they need a storm pond – so the firm would go out an survey the sites to see how much impermeable surface, the terrain…. soil, wetland, hydrology , etc and then come back with the specs for the pond – and the costs.

    you can get a feel for this these days by visiting any recent big box store and driving around to the sides and back – sometimes it’s in frot and you will find the pond or ponds that they had to build.

    what built up places are having to do – is build regional ponds that serve all the properties in a given area… and how many , etc , depends on the surface features… if it’s a large area with a lot of houses, it’s going to take a very large pond or multiple ponds… if there is a lot of dirty water involved – they’re starting to talk about treatment of that water before it is released.

    It’s interesting – and heartening to me that after all the initial talk about farms being the source of the degradation of the bay – there is an evolving realization that the built up areas with their impervious surfaces, motor oil, pet poop, fertilizers, pesticides, etc are probably far more damaging than some cows pooping in a field somewhere.

    • “It’s interesting – and heartening to me that after all the initial talk about farms being the source of the degradation of the bay – there is an evolving realization that the built up areas with their impervious surfaces, motor oil, pet poop, fertilizers, pesticides, etc are probably far more damaging than some cows pooping in a field somewhere.”

      Absolutely INACCURATE.

      Agricultural runoff is, by a fairly wide margin, the biggest problem confronting the Chesapeake Bay.

      http://bit.ly/20zsEWU

      The reason that you hear so much about suburban runoff and “rain taxes” is that the average citizens who will pay these taxes have not bought and paid for the politicians in Richmond and Washington. The Farm Bureau, on the other hand, has most certainly bought and paid for our politicians. Therefore, the less critical (but still very important) issue of stormwater runoff is being addressed while the more critical issue of agricultural runoff is being fought by well heeled lobbyists.

  9. The costs to restore the Bay are not infinite and no reasonable person claims that the Bay should be restored to the state in which it existed before humans came to the area. The Chesapeake Bay foundation issues a bi-annual State of the Bay report. 13 separate indicators are evaluated and the Bay is given a rating on a 1 to 100 scale. While a rating of 100 would equal the Bay at the time of colonization the CBF’s goal is a rating of 70 (note: at 32 the Bay is considered “improving” at 50 the Bay would be judged to be “stable”). That level would, in the CBF’s opinion, make the Bay resilient to the vagaries of nature and human depredation. The last annual report, for 2014, rated the Bay at 32 – or a D+ in the CBF’s grading system. In 1983 the Bay was rated a 23, by 2000 it was a 28, today it is a 32. Slow progress.

    My personal view is that there will be a “tipping point” in the Bay’s improvement tied to water clarity. Reduced stormwater and agricultural runoff helps make the water more clear. This allows more sunlight to reach the bottom which allows more Bay grasses to grow. More acres of grass coverage, in turn, creates greater clarity as the grasses help trap sediment. The virtuous cycle, once started, will accelerate relatively quickly. However, this cycle has to reach the tipping point before non-linear acceleration starts.

    The big question is what State of the Bay rating is required to reach the water clarity tipping point. we may be getting closer. In 2014 the CBF rated Bay water clarity at 18 – a depressingly low score. However, that score was up +2 from the 2012 report. As recently as last November a confluence of events resulted in the Chesapeake Bay’s water being unusually clear. Long time residents of Tangier Island saw structures on the floor of the Bay they hadn’t seen in decades. http://bit.ly/1m4ym3L While November’s clarity seems to have more to do with weather than a sustainable improvement in water clarity the episode (along with improved water clarity scores) provides some hope that we may be approaching the water clarity tipping point.

  10. This article restores my faith in Jim Bacon’s brand of conservatism. Those who cause problems for others must bear the cost of solving those problems. When it comes to pollution the suburban and urban areas of Virginia are causing problems for the largely rural areas bordering the Chesapeake Bay. Solving those problems is completely commensurate with proper conservative thinking even if the solution must be in the form of new taxes and greater government intervention.

    Pollution by one landowner that negatively affects the assets of another landowner is a violation of the second landowner’s property rights. One very legitimate role of government is to establish a system of laws and regulations in order to protect individual property rights.

    TomH’s points about poor designand poor choices in things like herbacide are “spot on”. The Accotink Creek disaster in Fairfax County is the direct result of willfully incompetent stormwater runoff management design. As a resident of Fairfax County I am partially responsible (along with the rest of the residents of Fairfax County) for fixing that problem. Will it be expensive to fix? Yes, big problems carry big price tags to remedy. As a conservative should I be ready to pay the price required to respect the property rights of others? Yes. When Ken Cuccinelli used a legal loophole to thwart the EPA’s effort to force Fairfax county to clean up its Accotink Creek mess was he behaving as a conservative? No. He was perfectly willing to let one group of property owners (where there were a lot of votes) injure the property rights of another group of landowners (where there were far fewer votes). There is nothing conservative about that.

    • How about the Port of Baltimore? Fairfax County engineers and technicians working on storm water and sanitary sewers have told me that the Port is one of the biggest contributors to problems in the Bay. Yet no one seems to be calling for a retrofit of the Port with its huge and dirty impervious surfaces. Are Virginians being forced to pay more so that the Port pays little or nothing?

      Also, the Fairfax County BoS, controlled by Democrats, were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit that concluded the EPA had exceeded its statutory powers by trying to regulate water instead of pollutants. Forcing an agency to operate within the bounds of its statutory authority and the APA also protects property rights.

      Let’s go to coffee someday. It’s been a while.

      • A lot of Baltimore is still a pollution mess. I’d guess that the Port of Baltimore is a big contributor to pollution into the Bay. The regulatory framework is an allocation of Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of pollution into the Bay. Each “Bay state” had to promise to reduce TMDL in order to comply with the Clean Water Act back in 2010. Each state is making progress although some states are doing better than others. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has a rating by state of TMDL reductions from May, 2015. You can read it here – http://1.usa.gov/1nFZYh6.

        Maryland appears to be doing the best according to the CBF. Virginia is in relatively good shape while Pennsylvania, as always, is a pig sty of Bay pollution.

        There are lot of pseudo-conservationists in both parties. However, since the Democrats claim leadership in conservation they also should be seen as leaders in hypocrisy when they fail to act in accordance with their stated philosophy. The Republicans have a willful blind spot when it comes to connecting pollution abatement and property rights.

        The EPA did exceed its statutory power in the Accotink Creek matter by using water runoff as a proxy for pollution. That was held to be an unacceptable method of regulation. However, nobody claimed that Accotink Creek was anything but a serious pollution problem. Cuccinelli’s claim that the EPA was trying to “regulate water” was disingenuous. The EPA was trying to regulate pollution using rainwater runoff as a means to measure that pollution.

        Happy to meet you for coffee. It would be great to catch up in person.

  11. Neither Chesterfield, nor any other jurisdiction, considering a “rain tax” should follow what Charlottesville did two years ago. Rather than being an attempt to control water, the Cville law is a landscape architecture hiring bill which forces anyone who actually wants to control runoff to hire an architect. I’d set up two of my houses to catch and hold water — it really only requires a little foresight, a couple google searches and a strong back — BUT because I didn’t have the landscape architect, I’m still stuck with paying the “rain tax” even though my property catches all my runoff and much of the runoff from houses up the hill. Though I have other houses, they will remain the way there were upon purchase because the absurdity of punishing someone who wants, and lives, toward environmental responsibility; because the Cville reg is a totally counterproductive law IF the regulation is truly designed to minimize runoff.

    P.S. Only one of the city councilors who voted for this regulation is an architect.

    • A similar cautionary note should be sounded for the definition of “impervious.” I keep on running into bureaucrats who insist the State meant its “impervious” surfaces limitation (for purposes of the Bay Act’s RPA) to include not only roofs and paved surfaces but also home sitting decks (with slatted planking) and graveled areas (like gravel paths and gravel parking areas). That’s not what common sense or the average voter would conclude.

    • Charlottesville (aka Berkeley of the Blue Ridge) often goes overboard with bureaucratic red tape. One would have thought that a property assessment, conducted by the city, would have been available to reward those who had addressed runoff prior to the “rain tax” being implemented. Charlottesville could have required whatever certification they wanted for the city inspectors.

  12. no rain garden or storm pond catches ALL – unless they are sized for the largest floods on record.

    and doing anything these days according to “code” – done by someone who does not have the background or credentials – is problematic because everyone is going to claim they are doing it according to “code” and we know how that ends up.

    how do you prove that what you did – performs as expected?

    environmental engineers have to go through fairly rigorous processes to figure out how big a pond should be – according to how big a rain event it’s supposed to be able to buffer before it fails if more rain comes.

    how do you do that without that kind of training?

    I’m not impugning your skills – I don’t even know what they are – but I’m giving you the devils advocate side from the officials responsible to make sure that these things work – as designed – and the design is produced by someone skilled in doing that?

  13. Fairfax County has imposed a requirement on all Tysons rezonings (and probably will do so elsewhere) to catch, hold and retain the first inch from any rainstorm. Earlier the County and landowners talked about doing something more aggressive, but the costs were too high, according to the landowners. The County agreed.

    • Fairfax County has to be part of Virginia’s compliance with the Clean Water Act and the TMDL budgets. There is a requirement that the amount of pollution be reduced not that all runoff or pollution be stopped. If Virginia can meet the mandate with the less aggressive approach in Tysons – so be it. It seems to me that the big question is how the state will allocate the reduction across both jurisdictions and across the major causes of Bay pollution.

      Virginia would benefit tremendously from a clean Chesapeake Bay. While I have never seen an economic impact study of the benefits to Virginia of a Chesapeake Bay at a CBF State of the Bay rating of 70 I can only imagine it would be worth billions and billions of dollars to the state economy. For example, a large number of Americans are set to retire over the next 10 – 20 years. While retirees, by definition, are not employed the wealthier retirees still pay a lot of taxes. These retirees also consume little in government spending – especially given that they no longer have children in public schools. A clean Chesapeake Bay could be quite the draw for retirees who want to spend their golden years near the largest estuary in the world. Retirees will also like the fact that Virginia has no estate tax.

      While I am sure this sounds harsh – the Commonwealth of Virginia needs to consider how it can match citizens who contribute more to the state (in taxes) then they cost the state (in services) in order to fund citizens who cost more than they contribute.

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