May 22, 2018

Selectboard readies spigot for stormwater fees

Ordinance to set levies for homeowners and businesses

By Greg Elias

Observer correspondent

Williston will draft an ordinance that establishes fees to fund a multi-million-dollar effort to reduce stormwater runoff that pollutes river and streams.

The Selectboard on Monday voted to direct town staff to write rules that would govern fees. The idea is to defray the cost of complying with state and federal mandates aimed at restoring waterways such as Allen Brook in Williston.

Michael Schramm of the Burlington consulting firm Hoyle, Tanner & Associates presented a report that recommended the town charge $4 to $4.50 a month for single-family homes. Commercial properties and all other landowners would pay fees based on the amount of impervious surface — parking lots and roads, for example — that precipitation can’t penetrate.

Schramm’s presentation revolved around the complexities of the fee calculation and how much revenue it would generate. In all, roughly $8 million must be spent to bring the town and private developments into compliance.

Williston Public Works Director Bruce Hoar outlined the town’s regulatory obligations. First, the town must spend an estimated $1.1 million on stream restoration projects, he said. Then it must undertake watershed improvements aimed at preventing future pollution that will cost $2 million to $3 million.

Meanwhile, private residential developments around Williston that currently do not comply with regulations face daunting costs to fix their stormwater problems totaling roughly $4.9 million.

Threaded through the 90-minute stormwater presentation were questions and comments from residents of the Meadow Run condominium development.

The proposed fee structure places condominiums into the non-single-family-home category, along with commercial properties. Fees for that category would be determined using a complex calculation that factors impervious surface as a percentage of total acreage.

Meadow Run resident Carl Fowler said his development not only has a different fee structure but also faces the crippling cost of privately paying to fix its own stormwater problems. He wondered if the town would help and asked how soon repairs must be made.
“I’m not here to try to evade the issue,” Fowler said, noting he supported environmental protections. “But obviously, I’m not a rich man. If my pocket is going to be tapped extensively, I should prefer it to be tapped over a much longer period of time as opposed to in two years.”

The town has two years to submit plans for curbing stormwater runoff. But Hoar said it is unclear how long the town and its private developments have to comply with regulations. He said the town’s compliance plan could extend to as long as 20 years, but progress has to be made over that time.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said the town could help homeowners’ associations with zero-interest loans for stormwater improvements. He said the town plans to assist out-of-compliance neighborhoods with administrative tasks.

But McGuire and Hoar also offered tough love. Hoar noted that some neighborhoods failed to act on long-standing stormwater problems. McGuire said some developments have maintained their stormwater systems better than others.

As for the town’s stormwater fees, Schramm said his firm’s analysis found that individual condominium owners actually do better with the impervious surface calculation than the flat fee paid by homeowners.

Stormwater comes from falling rain or melting snow streaming off impervious surfaces. It transports sediment and pollutants into streams and rivers that flow into lakes and oceans.

Williston is among 13 Vermont municipalities required under the federal Clean Water Act to improve stormwater controls. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency labeled those towns and cities as MS4, short for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems.

Updated MS4 permits were issued in December 2012. Under its new permit, Williston is required by 2016 to submit plans for controlling stormwater pollution.

The stepped-up regulations leave Williston little choice but to spend money on stormwater controls. The Selectboard had previously indicated that it preferred a fee to a property tax hike.

But that may make residents shrug because no matter the label, it’s a new bill to pay.

Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig in an interview acknowledged that reality, but said a fee would be more equitable because it would be based on the amount of stormwater runoff generated rather than property value and require even tax-exempt organizations and government properties to pay their share.

“A fee by any other name, is it a tax?” Macaig said. “Well, yes, except it is more fairly distributed, I believe. You’re going to hit everybody rather than just select taxpayers.”

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