Commentary: Stormwater Fees Are a Smart Idea

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Two recent pieces by Robert Craig that ran in The Roanoke Times (12/709 Commentary and 1/2/10 letter to the editor) criticizing the Citys proposed Stomwater Management fees deserve rebuttal.  While Craig rightly recognizes the need to improve the system and the cost these improvements entails, he opposes the -per-month residential fee and -per-1,920 square feet for non residential users proposed by Councilmen Cutler and Trinkle.  However, Cutler and Trinkles proposal is the right path, for not only would it raise the needed funds but might help address a key problem causing runoff:  an overabundance of parking capacity.  Stormwater management fees have the potential of contributing to a more compact, sustainable Roanoke Valley.

Parking contributes to stormwater management problems in two ways:  they create a huge amount of impermeable surface, collecting rainwater that requires massive drainage infrastructure to safely manage; and, by making it easy to find parking (often by providing a surplus of capacity), they encourage single-occupant vehicle trips, which means more roads (more impermeable surface).  In the latter case, not only does this put a strain on our drainage system, but contributes to secondary problems like air quality, traffic congestion, and increased energy demands.

As noted by City leaders, one of the driving forces behind stormwater improvements relates to federal and state requirements to improve water quality.  Most cars of any age leak oil and other fluids, generally in small enough quantities that the average owner doesnt notice.   However, these small leaks aggregated across a huge parking lot full of cars – think of Valley View Mall during Christmas, or any of Virginia Tech’s parking lots on any given days – can result in significant quantities of toxic chemicals waiting to be washed into the drains and, eventually, streams and rivers.  For example, in an interview with PBS’s Frontline, Jay Manning, Director of Washington State’s Department of Ecology, said “[t]he volume of oil that is carried into Puget Sound by stormwater runoff [every two years] is equal to the & the Exxon Valdez spill.”  Granted, Manning is speaking here of statewide impact, but the principle is the same:  the stuff that drips slowly from the undercarriage of all those parked car is eventually washed into the Roanoke River and its tributaries.

A funding scheme that buries the cost for stormwater management in property taxes or other general fund sources, as Craig proposes, might pay for system improvements but would do nothing to curb the growth of harmful development patterns that put additional strain on the system.  As Councilmen Trinkle and Cutler’s original commentary piece says:  “It is a plan that is funded based on the demands each property places on the storm drain system.”  By assessing a fee based on the size of impermeable surface, the City hopes to create an incentive to minimize that surface.

Developers and property owners would have the option to reduce the fee by eliminating surplus parking spaces, keeping access to their sites easy by investing in bike parking, employee transit benefits, carpooling, and other strategies in order to reduce parking demand, and thus, the necessary size of the parking lot.  It might encourage redevelopment in areas where existing parking is underutilized and can be shared across multiple sites, or in coordinating with existing bus lines, greenways, bike lanes, and other accommodations that provide transportation options requiring less parking.  To be fair, consideration needs to be given to developers who use innovative technologies or processes to mitigate their stormwater runoff permeable concrete and green roofs, for example or who offer excess parking capacity for public use as park-and-ride lots.

This is the fairest way to pay for the system improvements:  Charge the people who generate the most runoff, and create incentives for smarter development in the future.  In this regard, Craig’s fear that “Joe Blue-collar” will feel the bite of the fee (which amounts to $36 a year for homeowners) is a red herring. Clearly, the real targets (and rightly so) are large industrial and commercial sites who contribute most heavily to the problem.

There is one element related to stormwater management that should be considered.  To be truly successful, the problem of stormwater drainage and water quality must be addressed regionally.  The danger with the fee as proposed is that it could encourage sprawl by pushing new development into the suburban and rural portions of Roanoke and Botetourt Counties.  The expansion of development into these areas could exacerbate sprawl that, in turn, would contribute to longer commute distances, more roads, and unnecessary energy consumption.  This effort is a necessary start, but the region should come together to take a more comprehensive look at drainage and water quality and make sure that the problem of uncontrolled growth does not outpace the proposed solutions.

Jeremy Holmes
Program Director – RIDE Solutions