The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors heard the latest details Wednesday about an enhanced water resources protection program that would be paid for by a fee levied on county property owners.
“This really started back in 2014 with the identification of new mandates that would cost us more money to implement, as well as a recognition that there’s a lot of infrastructure in the county that is starting to fail,” said Greg Harper, the county’s chief of environmental services.
Harper presented supervisors with updated costs for the 10-year program, which would begin following the adoption of a stormwater utility fee. An existing program is paid for in part through the dedication of 0.7 cents of the county’s property tax rate.
“We’re not running a brand-new program from nothing,” Harper said. “We’re running right now a $3 million per year program, and what that means is that there are 16½ full-time equivalent staff at the county right now involved in some way or another in protecting water resources.”
The cost of the program would be $2 million for the first half-year of the program and more than $4.8 million for the second year. By the 10th year, the program would have an annual cost of more than $6 million. The additional funds would allow the county to replace and clean older stormwater pipes.
“We don’t really have a program to date that proactively addresses the maintenance of that infrastructure,” Harper said.
Harper said many localities, including the city of Charlottesville, have created a dedicated funding source to pay for their water resources program. The ultimate objective is to comply with federal and state mandates to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed.
Harper said the program would also cover the cost of purchasing and adopting stormwater infrastructure systems that are currently privately owned. He and other members of county staff are currently estimating how many linear miles that might include.
“We’re going to incorporate these numbers into the rate model that is used to calculate the actual billing rate,” Harper said.
Supervisor Rick Randolph asked Harper to calculate how many county employees are being paid for out of the 0.7 cents and how many are supported by separate fees paid for by developers to process stormwater management plans.
“One of the things that I anticipate we will hear from voters is that they want to know what the status quo really does look like,” Randolph said. He also predicted that the stormwater fee may become a big issue as supervisors consider the next county budget.
Supervisor Norman Dill said many people may have a psychological barrier to accepting the new fee.
“What I have sensed is that it is not a sense of people not wanting to pay more money, but that this is something new and unusual,” Dill said.
Supervisors will be given more information about the rate structure in January.
“It’s a funding mechanism,” said Supervisor Ann H. Mallek. “It’s a way to get squared away in the right bucket the money that is needed to do the state-mandated [programs] and the programs that the board has chosen to do.”
Supervisors were also briefed on the results of a public outreach process on the county’s stream buffer regulations.
“The general idea of a buffer is that it’s an area of vegetation adjacent to streams, rivers, reservoirs, wetlands or ponds that is managed and protected,” said David Hannah, the county’s water resources manager. “When there is a flood or storm event, the stream can overflow its banks and access the flood plain which is a natural thing.”
Since May, Hannah has overseen a public process to gauge citizen input on the current stream buffer rules which were enacted following passage of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act by the General Assembly in 1988.
“The [act] enables localities to regulate activities that impact water quality and stream buffers are one of the major tools,” he said. Compliance is mandatory for localities east of Interstate 95, but voluntary for those to the west, including Albemarle County.
Albemarle enacted a water protection area ordinance in 1991 and further refined buffers in 1998 with another ordinance.
“Many residents know very little or sometimes nothing about our stream buffer regulations and the water protection ordinance,” Hannah said.
In the development area, the rules require a 100-foot buffer on both sides of most waterways that are always active. That same rule applies in the rural areas, but it is also extended at intermittent streams.
An amendment to the ordinance in 2014 exempted agricultural land from that requirement. There must instead be a 25-foot buffer between crops and streams.
Hannah said some in the community hopeful for stronger protections for stream health, whereas others are concerned that further regulations will take away property rights.
“We observed a clear division between residents of the rural area and residents and advocates of the development area,” Hannah said.
Mallek said there are many advocates for stream buffers who live in the rural area.
“In the rural area, it is the complete spectrum,” she said.
Hannah said his recommendation is to hone the stream buffer policy to treat rural and development areas differently.
“I don’t think a single person pointed out the need to treat both areas the same,” Hannah said. “We also heard the comment that people will do the right thing on their property if they were more informed on what the right thing is.”
Hannah has suggested he and other staff work on refining rules for the development area first before turning to the rural areas.
“Most buffer issues identified in the development area center around creating incentives for developers and landowners to improve water quality,” Hannah said. “The incentives would be designed to further the county goal of encouraging growth in the development areas, and thus reducing development pressure in the rural areas.”
Mallek said she wanted to see more emphasis on enforcement.
“If there are no consequences, people are less likely to do what they need to do,” Mallek said. “Within zoning rules and other things communities can create, my property rights stop at my property line, and I have no right to throw dirt into the stream that then goes downstream.”