By Will Schick | [email protected]
City council unanimously passed an ordinance doubling the stormwater utility fee from $140 to $280 during Saturday’s public hearing.
The increased fee will add $155 million into the city’s coffers over the next 10 years and will help fund an ambitious new flood mitigation action plan, according to city staff. The plan includes various capacity and spot improvement projects meant to overhaul Alexandria’s crumbling stormwater infrastructure.
Although residents have been calling on the city to take action and address the stormwater system after a slew of intense flooding events over the past two years, several residents said they believed enlarging the city’s budget was not enough to curb flooding in their neighborhoods. Previously, the city has used the stormwater fee to fund projects intended to control water quality and not flooding.
Speakers at the public hearing mostly live in Del Ray, an area that has experienced repeated flooding in recent years. They called upon the city to take more pre-emptive action to prevent severe flooding. They also asked that council direct the city to conduct more localized projects, or spot improvement projects, during extreme weather events.
Daniel Alderman, a resident of Hume Avenue in Del Ray, said he lives in a perpetual state of dread over what the next storm could do.
“On the night of July 23, 2020, I parked my Honda Accord on the street in front of my home and lost it that evening in the rainwater,” Alderman said.
Alderman said he strongly supported increasing the stormwater utility fee and called on City Council to provide immediate assistance for those who live on his street. Alderman also said he still worries about losing his car to the rain.
Allison Scates, also a Hume Avenue resident, said her home flooded twice last year: once in July and again in September. “When it flooded in September, sewer water came in through the drain, as well as water from the alley. It was so bad,” Scates said, “It smelled like it was a combination of human waste and like rotting food.”
The flooding, Scates said, has led her to live in a “constant state of fear because whenever it rains, you don’t know.” She added that she was particularly concerned about what may happen this summer.
Councilor Canek Aguirre then asked Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, if he could elaborate on what the city could do to mitigate flooding in neighborhoods that are known to be flood prone.
“Do we have staff that can be dispatched to monitor some of these hotspots that we know are going to potentially get activated during a flash flood? And what would they potentially do?” Aguirre asked.
“The answer is that there is very little we can do,” Lambert responded.
Lambert explained that the current infrastructure cannot process excess stormwater and that large-scale improvements are necessary.
“Given the size of the existing infrastructure, we have to make the capital investments in this to increase the size of the pipes and the retention facilities to actually make some of those improvements,” Lambert said.
Natalie Engel, another Hume Avenue resident, spoke about the trauma of surviving the multiple storms that ravaged her neighborhood last year. Engel said the storms in July and September caused her family to spend tens of thousands of dollars on water damage mitigation – costs, she said, that were not covered by homeowner’s insurance.
“In addition to the costs of these repairs, we spent upward of $10,000 to rent an Airbnb out of state for the four of us to live in while [restoration] work was in progress,” Engel said.
Engel added that the stress of overseeing repairs to their home while caring for two children without childcare and managing a full-time job was incredibly stressful. She also said the city’s slow approach to rectifying the stormwater issues has caused her family to seri-ously consider relocating.
“The timeline for this plan has also put into question our desire to stay in Alexandria, and especially, Del Ray, which is where we hoped to raise our children,” Engel said.
Engel also said that she “did not approve an increase in stormwater fees in principle, but I am concerned about the schedule, both for repairs affecting Hume and all across Del Ray.”
Given Hume Avenue residents’ concerns about the need for immediate stormwater repairs, Mayor Justin Wilson pushed Lambert to specify when residents in that area could expect work to begin in their neighborhood.
Lambert said the city had not scheduled work to begin on Hume Avenue until fiscal year 2022, which starts in July of next year.
According to the staff presentation, the timeline for completing projects once they are funded ranges from three to five years.
Sheriff Dana Lawhorne said that while he supported increasing the stormwater fee to help fund projects meant to curb flooding, he did not believe the language of the ordinance made this purpose clear.
“We have no problems paying the new fee as long as there are guarantees that it goes to fix the flooding,” Lawhorn said. “… Section 56-236, that needs to be amended. It specifically de-scribes what the fee could be used for. And it’s this section that we want amended to alleviate any confusion.”
Only six members of the public provided live comments about the stormwater fee, discussion of which came at the end of a public hearing that lasted more than 11 hours and included six hours of discussion about another controversial topic, redevelopment of the Heritage in Old Town. None of the residents who spoke at the meeting were explicitly against raising the stormwater fee.
However, many residents of the Alexandria community continue to oppose the fee for a variety of reasons. In letters written to the Alexandria Times, community members have said they believed the city would squander the excess funding on paying staff salaries instead of applying the funds to work on much-needed flood mitigation projects.
Residents have also expressed concern about how the city determined its precise financial need for a 100% increase in the fee and have called for more transparency and accountability on where the money will be spent.
Many community members, including those participating in the virtual public hearing, also expressed dissatisfaction with the slow timeline for the planned project improvements.
After the closing of public comments, Councilor Mo Seifeldein made a motion, seconded by Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, to pass the ordinance. The ordinance passed 7-0.
Council also directed staff to draft an amendment to the ordinance that includes more deliberate language to explain how the fee would help specifically fund projects meant to curb flooding.