October 25, 2014

Stormwater plan may cost residents

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Town ponders stormwater utility fee

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

Six species of trees were planted along the banks of the Allen Brook in Williston last fall in an effort to mitigate bank erosion and reestablish the natural habitat of the watershed. The nascent trees are protected by plastic tubes that prevent browsing by deer and rodents. Despite the efforts of the Williston Conservation Commission and town volunteers, the Allen Brook remains an impaired watershed, which has prompted the Williston Selectboard to explore alternative means to tax residents for stormwater management funding. (Observer photo by Luke Baynes)

Although it got top billing at the May 21 Williston Selectboard meeting, a flow restoration plan and related stormwater funding study for the Allen Brook ultimately played second fiddle to a contentious debate over alternatives to the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway.

But between the two topics, the stormwater issue could have a more immediate impact on Williston residents as the Selectboard looks for ways to improve the watershed that covers 31.4 percent of Williston’s 31 square miles and which has been relegated to the federal list of impaired watersheds since 1998.

Bethany Eisenberg of consulting firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. explained that stormwater runoff and the high percentage of impervious surfaces in North Williston are among the primary reasons the Allen Brook is impaired.

“When it rains, it’s like giving the pavement a bath, and all the dirty bathwater with all the pollutants in it goes into our brooks, rivers, streams and wetlands,” Eisenberg said.

Besides polluted water, negative ramifications to residents from the Allen Brook’s impaired status include greater difficulty obtaining development permits and increased real estate due diligence.

The town currently uses a combination of Public Works and Planning and Zoning department staff to address stormwater issues. It funds stormwater services through municipal property taxes, which flow into the town’s general fund.

Eisenberg and her VHB colleague Joshua Sky proposed an alternative “stormwater utility,” in which taxpayers would be billed separately for the town’s stormwater-related operations based on the amount of impervious surface owned by the resident.

“It’s a fee-based system for a service, and the service that you’re providing is the stormwater management in the town,” Eisenberg told the Selectboard. “It is not a tax. Everybody pays, and it’s typically based on the impervious area of your property.”

Sky explained that the fee system would involve establishing an “equivalent residential unit” that would equal the average amount of impervious surface for a single-family residence.

“A typical residential parcel in Williston is about 5,100 square feet of impervious surface—a little over a tenth of an acre,” Sky said. “We used that ERU, which we equate as a single-family residence, as the basis to calculate all of the stormwater fees.”

Although the amount taxpayers would be responsible for would likely vary based on the amount of federal grant funding the town is able to obtain, the estimates presented by VHB assume a monthly fee range of $2 to $5 per ERU. On the high end, that would mean a property owner with 5,100 square feet of impervious surface would be responsible for an annual fee of $60.

Theoretically, the stormwater fee would be offset by a commensurate decrease to general property taxes, although the Selectboard could choose to reallocate that portion of the operating budget to other town projects during the annual budget process.

Sky said the town’s annual stormwater budget averaged around $428,000 for the past five years, of which approximately $200,000 was comprised of annual grant funding. He said he expects the annual budget to increase to between $520,000 and $565,000, based on projected estimates for Williston’s “flow restoration plan,” which is a state-mandated requirement for towns with impaired watersheds.

Sky recommended that the town consolidate its stormwater operations into a single department and appoint a stormwater coordinator who would be responsible for overseeing the stormwater utility. He said having a separate funding source administered by a dedicated individual would increase the town’s likelihood of receiving grant monies.

“There’s a higher percentage chance of success in securing grants when you have a dedicated funding source that you can use for matching and you can show that you have an individual who is going to be able to administer the grant,” Sky said.

Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire said the Selectboard will need to decide before the fall budget season whether it wants to maintain the status quo or establish a fee-based stormwater utility.

“The key decision the board has, as I see it at this moment, is do you want a fee, or do you want to keep it the same and fund it entirely through property taxes,” McGuire said. “If you want a fee, then we still have a lot of work to do.”

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