Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Water torture

A tale appropriate for tax day.

Goochland’s supervisors voted 3-2 to take over management of federal and state mandated storm water runoff regulations at their April 13 meeting. Board Chair Susan Lascolette, District 1, and Ken Peterson, District 5, were in dissent.

Last year, the supervisors voted to opt out of involvement in the matter because the program was new and rather vague. This year, the Virginia General Assembly passed measures clarifying the regulations, allegedly implemented to protect surface water and help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
The goal is to ensure that rainwater soaks into the ground close to where it falls from the sky instead of running off into streams and rivers. Proponents contend that this will reduce the amount of pollutants that are washed into surface water following storms.

However, there seems to be no solid proof that the implementation of costly, and sometimes complicated, measures to control storm water runoff reduces water pollution, which is measured by the “nutrients” in water samples.

Those same “nutrients” are touted as beneficial soil amendments by proponents of spreading sludge, end products of wastewater treatment plants, on fields.

The matter is—pardon the expression—a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

The regulations will apply to all new construction, commercial and residential, that disturbs an acre or more of ground. They will tie in with erosion and sediment control measures already in place.

Run off may be controlled by creating retention basins, rain gardens, or other “best management practices”(BMP) to corral those pesky raindrops. Fees may be charged to offset the cost to local governments to oversee the regulations. The state gets a 28 percent cut of initial charges, but localities may retain all fees generated in subsequent years of construction.

But wait, there’s more! Once the BMPs are in place, they must be inspected on a regular basis, in perpetuity, to ensure that they are doing their job. Localities must perform this task. According to the county’s environmental engineer Debbie Byrd, they will be spot checked. In the event that say, a pond becomes so clogged with silt that water is unable to soak into the ground, additional work must be done to remedy the situation.
Fees may be levied only for land under construction. Once the BMPs are in place, the fees stop, but the regulatory oversight, performed by an employee of some level of government. The cost of that employee will be picked up by taxpayers.

The cost of fixing BMPs that no longer function will be borne by property owners, or in the case of residential subdivisions, a homeowners’ association.

Goochland County Attorney Norman Sales explained that the ordinance contains enforcement provisions to cover this circumstance. He said that the compulsory enforcement process could create situations that wind up in Circuit Court for resolution.

Byrd said that accepting responsibility for the program would improve the customer service to landowners and developers, who contend that working through the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is a longer and more cumbersome, therefore more expensive, process.
Malachi Mills, an engineer who works with local developers, said, during the public hearing, that working through DEQ in the past year added sometimes two months to the time needed to secure approval of all storm water runoff mitigation plans.

Peterson acknowledged that “time is money” to developers, but cautioned that Goochland will not get a favorable return on its investment for getting involved in the process. He raised concerns about the out year costs of administering the program, which could increase cumulative costs.
Byrd estimated the county’s annual tab to administer the program at approximately $170,000, mostly personnel costs already funded in the budget. Overall, according to an example included in the presentation, the county will lose money. However, Byrd explained that many of the inspections for both storm water and erosion and sediment control will be performed by the same person on the same trip, which will dilute the expense.

Manuel Alvarez, Jr., District 2 said that even if Goochland opts out of the program, the county will be involved in the process and not receive any of the fees.

Lascolette said that the county looks for local control in land use matters and, in this case, hopes not to lose money. “But, there are so many unanswered questions.”

The Board voted to consider a fee schedule at a later meeting. The county will assume responsibility for the Virginia Stormwater Management Program on July 1, 2015.

This is yet another example of trickle down mandates dumped on local governments by legislators on the state and federal level. The true cost of this program may be as hard to ascertain as its purported benefits. But, the taxpayers get to foot the bill, once more.

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