City considers stormwater management fee

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City considers stormwater management fee
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By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

Residents and businesses in the city may be required to pay a new stormwater management fee, officials with the department of transportation and environmental services announced last week.

Under a preliminary fee structure provided by city staff, owners of a typical single family detached home would expect to pay around $10 to $12 a month, while townhouses would pay around $4 to $5. Those who own a home with more than 2,800 square feet can expect to pay between $18 and $20 a month. The fee is structured so if a property has more impervious surfaces that do not allow rainwater to pass through, it will pay more.

The fee is intended to replace the current half-cent per $100 of assessed value set-aside in the tax rate for stormwater management included in property tax bills.

Likewise, the fee for businesses and other institutions like federal government tenants will vary depending on how much impervious area is on their property. A restaurant in Old Town, for example, may pay less under this new structure compared to on its taxes if it has little impervious area.

On an impervious surface, stormwater is not able to pass through into the ground, so it often mixes with pollutants and other waste, contaminating the water as it moves toward storm drains or the river.

A draft timeline of the fee’s implementation provided by staff said, if approved, the first bills would go out in May 2018. Council directed staff last spring to start formulating the plan.

It would fund the city’s stormwater management infrastructure and also go toward cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, mandated by the federal government and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

“Because we expect costs to manage this infrastructure over the next few years to increase, particularly over the next 10 to 15 years as we are responding to new unfunded state and federal mandates, city council directed staff to explore some stormwater funding alternatives to come up with a long-term, sustainable and equitable solution that lessens the general fund impact,” city transportation director Yon Lambert told reporters at a briefing.

Residents and businesses will be eligible for a fee reduction if they undertake voluntary stormwater management efforts on their own. At this point, Lambert said staff is still determining what that voluntary management would entail, in addition to any documentation that will need submission.

A public comment period will follow as transportation and environmental services staff go on what they described as a “roadshow” to explain more about the fee proposal. Lambert said the credit system also will be up for further discussion.

“We’ll be talking about what’s in that toolbox,” he said. “The challenge is that there is some benefit to doing that and to encouraging changing behavior. It’s just that we have to establish what the right threshold is.”

Bill Skrabak, the city’s deputy director for infrastructure and the environment, said a similar idea was examined in 2007. A work group at the time suggested a fee system, but when it reached city council in 2010, officials decided to have the half-cent set-aside on property tax bills instead.

Since then, new regulations have been introduced for cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, with a view to ensuring that pollution from sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus is reduced to acceptable levels.

States that neighbor the bay have set targets to cut the total maximum daily load of pollution into the Potomac River, which drains into the Chesapeake, dramatically by 2028.

Locally, Alexandria has been tasked with reducing its pollution into the bay by 5 percent by 2018, although Skrabak said a combination of a more stringent stormwater management ordinance, proffers by developers and existing city infrastructure means that the city is on track for a 20 percent reduction by that time.

From 2018 to 2025, Alexandria is required to reduce pollutants by a further 35 percent, then another 60 percent to complete the cleanup between 2023 and 2028. Under the Clean Water Act, localities can be fined tens of thousands of dollars per day for not hitting their targets, which are mandated by federal law but not directly paid for by the federal government.

Skrabak said the city is committed to spending between $50 million and $60 million in its 10-year capital budget, but that is not enough to help the city meet those targets. Stormwater management division chief Jesse Maines said the city spends 1.7 cents on stormwater per half-cent set-aside, and that gap will continue to grow.

“This [fee] would be creating a dedicated funding source,” Maines said. “It can only be used for stormwater; it can’t be used for anything else. It would be an enterprise fund only used for stormwater, the administration of stormwater programs and for treating and controlling.”

Elsewhere, stormwater fees are in use in Maryland, Prince William County and the City of Falls Church. Fairfax and Arlington counties use a special tax district.

In the coming months, city officials will hold community meetings with civic associations and other interested bodies like nonprofits and the chamber of commerce. Skrabak said if council approves the initial framework this fall and allows it to proceed, it will be included in the fiscal 2018 budget process, which starts next year.

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