Alexandria’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services is consistently in the spotlight because part of its mission is to solve the city’s persistent flooding and protect our streams, the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay from pollutants in stormwater runoff.
One of T&ES’ laudable initiatives is the stormwater utility fee credit, which offers property owners reductions of up to 30% of the annual stormwater utility fee for implementing any of 10 stormwater mitigation measures on a credit menu. Examples include permeable pavement, conservation landscaping, a cistern, a rain garden, one or more rain barrels and adherence to a “no fertilizer” pledge.
The SWU credit was first offered to homeowners in 2019. In the Dec. 1, 2021 to Feb. 15, 2022 application period, only 65 homeowners applied for the credit. The city classifies 23,190 dwellings as single-family residences, of which 9,142 are detached houses. The homeowner participation rate – measured by either single family residences or detached houses – is well under 1%.
The disparity between the annual stormwater fee revenue and the aggregate yearly fee reductions shows that credit participation can be increased substantially without affecting T&ES’ other priorities. The credit has generated about $55,000 in fee reductions in calendar year 2022. City Council’s Stormwater Utility 10-Year Plan projects FY2022 and FY2023 revenues from the stormwater fee of $16.9 million and $17.6 million, respectively.
The best intended property owner-oriented environmental program is of little value if its use is so limited. T&ES’ expertise is engineering, but the credit is essentially a marketing activity: T&ES sells property owners a fee reduction and the satisfaction of protecting Alexandria’s environment in return for stormwater management improvements on their properties. Here, respectfully, are suggestions to make the SWU credit more effective:
Emulate more effective programs. The city regularly measures employee compensation and other programs against other communities. T&ES should also compare credit participation rates and reward levels to other jurisdictions. For example, Montgomery County offers homeowners up to $7,500 in its Rainscapes program.
Encourage more impactful measures. Of the 71 SWU credit applications in 2021 to 2022, 31 earned the credit for installing rain barrels and 36 earned it for taking the “no fertilizer” pledge. These practices are easy to install or agree to. All other mitigation strategies attracted six or fewer applicants. The credit menu and application should be revised to encourage applicants to make actual drainage improvements that reduce stormwater runoff such as a rain garden or a dry well.
Rethink the application period. The Dec. 1 to Feb. 15 application window exists to coordinate the credit with the stormwater utility fee, which is assessed on real estate tax bills in May and October. The application form requires, for some mitigation practices, growing season photographs that must be taken months before the application period begins on Dec. 1. T&ES should fix this by accepting and processing applications for the entire calendar year with the condition that the credit would be applied to the fee assessed in May of the next year.
Make it a five-year credit. Residential and commercial property owners must apply for the SWU credit every year. T&ES should allow property owners who earn the credit to certify annually that measures installed are still present with a re-application and re-documentation requirement every five years. T&ES is rightfully concerned about protecting public funds, but the probability that a property owner motivated to install stormwater mitigation practices would remove them seems low. A five-year credit, subject to annual certification, would allow T&ES to promote the five-year value of the credit as an inducement.
The SWU credit is an admirable opportunity for property owners to actively protect Alexandria’s environment. T&ES should consider ways to increase participation, which would improve the program’s effectiveness.
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at [email protected] and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com.