Regulations that have trickled down from the federal government could cause a storm surge for localities as they go into effect in the coming years.
The stormwater regulations are a new breed of oversight that requires increased manpower and technical expertise with little funding from the levels of government imposing the requirements. The program stems from the Federal Environmental Protection Administration’s “total maximum daily load” plan implemented to keep pollution out of the beleaguered Bay.
For Northern Neck counties, which border the environmentally sensitive Chesapeake Bay, the new stormwater regulations amount to another unfunded mandate.
This didn’t come as news to interim Essex County Administrator Bill Pennell, who before his current post served as Lancaster County administrator. As increased erosion and sediment control regulations came down from the state level, it was clear to Pennell that implementation would require more time and staff. When Pennell complained to a representative at the Department of Environmental Quality, he said their response was there is no added cost or burden, because localities can charge whatever they want for permit fees, a feat that bears obvious political ramifications in small counties.
“That’s the typical attitude for a state representative when dealing with localities,” Pennell said. “Frankly, they don’t care because they’re in an oversight capacity and not boots on the ground. I’d like to see them come to a board of supervisors’ meeting and look a citizen in the eye and say they’re going to raise their permit fees.”
The 2012 Virginia General Assembly passed legislation calling for all Virginia counties and municipalities to create local stormwater management programs. Specifically, development of the programs will include localities adopting water quality standards for development and redevelopment under the Virginia Stormwater Management Program (VSMP).
Ted McCormack, director of governmental affairs for the Virginia Association of Counties (VACO), called the new mandate “a great concern,” and said that VACO plans to press for a more thorough study to determine the fiscal impact to localities.
“This thing’s been lurking for a while,” he said. “This is coming down from the federal government and the thought is that it’s less expensive to clean up waterways…before stormwater or pollution or runoff get into the water system than to try to clean it up after it gets there.
“But, again, the burden is there on local governments to try to come up with the money,” he said.
There’s also a technical burden. Anyone disturbing upwards of .5 acres will have to obtain a stormwater permit from the county. According to Northumberland County Administrator Kenneth “Kenny” Eades, permits start at $1,500. In addition, those seeking to break ground will need engineered plans for how to address runoff.
“If you’re requiring an engineer to draw up something, then chances are we’re going to have to have an engineer to look at it,” Eades said.
Richard English, code compliance officer for Richmond County, shares this concern. For the past two years, English has retained oversight of the county’s Bay Act and Erosion and Sediment Control programs. The upcoming stormwater regulations, however, have him worried about the plan review phase.
“I believe it is kind of coming to the point that you may need to be a licensed professional engineer or surveyor to do the review, at least, of the plans,” English said. “There are a lot of aspects that the common man or an ‘Average Joe’ like myself doesn’t grasp.”
At this point, English anticipates Richmond County will be able to handle the new workload due to a relatively flat building climate. It’s a comfort that larger localities do not share.
“We can kind of evolve and adapt as we move along whereas they’re going to have to jump right in,” he said.
There are also concerns that the new fee structure imposed by the regulations could affect the building industry, which has been licking its wounds since the real estate market crash of 2007.
In Richmond County, where new home construction is already low, English anticipates a direct hit to that sector but predicts a rise in re-development.
“New development would probably go down, redevelopment would probably go up of existing properties,” he said. “I think it would be more cost effective to do redevelopment.”
Localities are also expected to inspect properties routinely, a task that Eades said existing staff will have a hard time with if development returns to levels experienced during the height of construction in the county. Currently, Northumberland is seeing roughly five to seven new homes a month, according to Eades. Before the real estate market bottomed out, the county was seeing triple that level of construction activity.
“I was worried about staff keeping up then. Well now with some of the new requirements there’s no way they’ll be able to keep up if we ever get back to that level,” Eades said.
“The law says 48 hours after a major rain event you have to do an erosion control inspection,” Eades said. “So, you get a major rain event and you’ve got 110 sites or 150 sites you’ve got to look at. That takes a lot of time. And you’re supposed to write up a report on each one.”
In an effort to ease the transition into managing their own local stormwater programs, the Northern Neck counties banded together to seek grant funding through the state.
English supported the collaborative effort.
“One of the ideas was to come together regionally…until we get our feet under ourselves and know exactly what’s required by the regs,” English said. “Also, it pools funds together and I think that might be a good way to start out the programs.”
On Nov. 15, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell announced the award of 59 Virginia Locality Stormwater Program Development grants totaling more than $2 million statewide that will assist local governments in developing locally run stormwater programs.
Calling the grants “an important step in developing programs that meet state and federal stormwater standards while keeping oversight of local projects in local hands,” McDonnell said they also “help lessen the burden on local governments in developing programs that protect our local waters and streams statewide.”
Successful applicants submitted a proposed stormwater ordinance and an outline of proposed staffing levels and funding sources for their local stormwater management program.
The Northern Neck counties applied regionally for grant funding assistance through the Northern Neck Planning District Commission. Individual appropriations were capped at $100,000. Eades said that the Northern Neck counties were at a disadvantage during the application process because they are located east of I-95 and had existing Bay Act programs in place.
The NNPDC is listed as a grant recipient in the governor’s statement, but it does not supply any funding total. According to R. Morgan Quicke, Richmond County administrator, the counties aren’t expected to know funding totals until January.