Reactions to Stormwater Credits Proposal

I of course read the various press releases from candidates for County Council, and one of them that came out recently is about a topic that is near and dear to my heart: the new stormwater fee (link to the press release behind the HT paywall is here). That candidate endorsed the fee, which I definitely appreciated. The stormwater management program is an enormous leap forward for Monroe County in protecting the quality of our water supply and in providing a funding source for flood control.  I also agree that the program should support and encourage sound stormwater management practices by individual property owners.

But unfortunately the proposal would cost more in administration than would actually be collected in fees — and the whole purpose of this stormwater management program is to get work done in the field, not to have people sitting in desks at the office.

This press release called for credits on the individual homeowner’s $36/year stormwater fee based on sound land management practices like having a stone driveway rather than an asphalt driveway. And it further stated that the county assessor takes pictures of properties all the time, and their staff could be trained to identify and document stormwater features.

I think the proposal is a nice thought…but these issues have already been discussed and analyzed extensively, and there are better ways to encourage good land management practices.

  1. First, there is the issue of the stone driveway vs. asphalt.  Athough stone can be superior to asphalt or concrete, in order to allow stormwater to infiltrate, the stone driveway must both be specifically designed and very well-maintained to be permeable. In practice, once compacted by driving over them, most stone driveways perform very similarly to asphalt driveways – that is, they shed most of the water and allow it to run off to the surrounding property.The stone driveway would have to be very well-maintained to be worth crediting; and it would likely cost more than the $36/year to verify that the driveway was being maintained properly – certainly more than can be verified by a photograph.
  2. Second, the Assessor’s Office typically only takes pictures every 4-5 years normally (during a reassessment). And further, these pictures are not of the scope and level of detail that would be required to efficiently determine stormwater mitigation. They take pictures of the house, not necessarily of the grounds and the pavement. For example, see the Assessor’s new picture of my house: In the 2012 picture at the top, my driveway isn’t visible at all.   This proposal would put much larger demands on both the staff of the assessor’s office and their assessment contractor – and really just increase administrative costs with very little additional benefit.
  3. A large number of residential credits, particularly given for activities that don’t make much of an overall difference in water quality and flood control, would decrease the resources that the stormwater management program would have to do its work, or would increase the costs and rate on other property owners.It doesn’t make any sense to give incentives for things that are already done – and a $36/year credit is not going enough of an incentive to influence the driveway design choices of a homeowner.
  4. Very early on in the deliberations on the creation of the program, the decision was made to bill residential homeowners a flat rate, rather than base their rate on the impervious area of their properties, while billing commercial/industrial properties based on their actual impervious area. This was a balance between complete fairness (everyone billed for the amount of runoff their property actually generates) and administrative efficiency (everyone billed the same amount).It would not be any more fair than a flat residential rate to arbitrarily pick out one feature (stone driveways) out of many that would generate credits. Under this proposal, for example, a small compact house with very small impervious surface area and a small asphalt driveway would actually be billed more than a sprawling ranch house with a much larger impervious surface, but a crushed stone driveway.

    The alternative is to start measuring the actual impervious area of residential properties – and this means measuring patios, barns, sheds, sidewalks, etc. – not just driveways. And once again, the administrative costs shoot up.

The County has set up a Stormwater Advisory Committee as part of the ordinance that created the stormwater management program that is tasked specifically with coming up with a credit system, and they are certainly looking at the issue of credits for individual homeowners.  But to be honest, the individual credit has been tried in a few other jurisdictions (Newberg, Oregon, for example), and there is not one single example of success anywhere. The cost of compliance and of verifying compliance is inevitably much higher than the relatively low monthly fee.

The underlying point – that the stormwater management program should encourage sound stormwater management practices – is of course well-taken, though. While costly and inefficient credits on a $36/year fee are not an effective way to encourage those practices, there are things that can be done; in fact, encouraging sound land management practices is one of the primary reasons I have advocated for the stormwater management program since the beginning.

A much more effective and efficient way approach is to use the resources of the stormwater management program to provide technical advice, education, and support to the homeowner. The program could provide literature and consultation on creating a rain garden, a green roof, or a permeable driveway, for example. The program can partner with other organizations like the Solid Waste Management District and the Soil and Water Conservation District to coordinate education and outreach to all sectors of the community. The program can even negotiate discounts and/or grants on project supplies, like rain barrels, native plantings, pavers, etc.

Personally, we have some drainage issues in our own front yard. I have often thought that a rain garden might be a good approach to dealing with them. But a visit from an expert along with some advice on how to create it would be much more of an incentive for me to actually take the plunge and install the rain garden than a credit on a $36/year bill.

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