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In the next several years, Albemarle County is expected to triple the level of funding for programs to reduce water pollution to comply with federal and state mandates to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
“There have been quite a few increases in the amount of work that the county has to do to comply with these mandates,” said Greg Harper, the county’s water resources manager.
On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors learned about a committee’s recommendation to pay for those programs by levying a stormwater utility fee on all properties in the county. The fee would be based on the amount of impervious surface at a property, including rooftops.
The county is required by the Virginia Stormwater Management Program to prevent or mitigate pollution from construction sites. This has required more staff members to both approve developers’ plans and to perform inspections.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only issues municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permits to localities if they can demonstrate they can reduce pollution loads. Albemarle is required to have a plan to improve water quality in the Rivanna River and its tributaries.
In 2014, supervisors dedicated 0.7 cents of the property tax rate to pay for increased stormwater management programs. The central question is whether to increase that amount or raise revenues in some other fashion.
“What this comes down to is whether you engage in a paradigm shift in how you fund this project?” said David Bulova, a senior planner at AMEC Environment & Infrastructure. That company worked with the committee on the report.
“One way or the other, we have to put in the mechanisms to take the Chesapeake Bay off the impaired list by 2025,” he added.
The county currently spends $1.5 million a year to support these positions and another $300,000 on implementation.
However, the county also must begin building new infrastructure to reduce the speed of stormwater. Harper said he expects that will cost around $2.2 million a year.
“A lot of the drainage infrastructure around the county is aging,” Harper said, meaning that there will likely be more sinkholes as pipes fail.
With that in mind, the annual cost of the expanded water resources program would increase from $4.2 million in the first year it begins to $6.8 million in the 10th year.
A committee of stakeholders has been studying how to pay for the county’s program for the past year and finalized its recommendations in September.
“The group really wrestled with some difficult issues,” Harper said. “The decisions that were made did not come easy and there’s not a complete consensus.”
A narrow majority of the group recommended that the county adopt a stormwater fee based on how much a property contributes to stormwater. A majority suggested that the stormwater program be funded through one sole mechanism and that if a fee is implemented, the entire county be subject to it rather than just the development area.
Consensus was reached to allow property owners to get credits based on their own stormwater management and there would be other incentives to encourage private investment in stormwater reduction.
So far, more than 20 localities across Virginia have enacted a fee on property owners, including Charlottesville.
Joe Jones, a farmer from Albemarle’s White Hall District who served on the committee, said he was initially supportive of the fee but changed his mind.
“Personally, I began to feel uneasy because I didn’t understand all the aspects of this, but at the last committee meeting, it came out that the [Geographic Information System] could have discrepancies,” Jones said.
For instance, Jones was concerned that hay bales covered with certain kinds of tarps could look like rooftops and that area be counted toward a property owner’s total amount of impervious surface.
However, fellow committee member Rob Neil said the fee would serve the purpose of getting property owners to pay for their own stormwater infrastructure in exchange for credits.
“If you go with the general fee, you can’t incentivize change,” Neil said.
Supervisors took no action and offered no general direction. All had questions.
“I go back and forth on this,” said Supervisor Liz Palmer said. “[A fee] is the right thing to do but if the credit you’re going to get for something like a rain garden, if you have to pay too much to get that credit, is it really going to incentivize anything?”
The fee, if implemented, will not be levied anytime soon.
“Even if the board decides to follow the recommendations of the committee, it will take another 12 to 18 months to be in a place to actually implement anything,” Harper said.