VTrans to pay up

Town, state settle stormwater fee disagreement

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

After more than half a year of back and forth, the Vermont Agency of Transportation has agreed to pay Williston’s townwide stormwater fee.

The Selectboard authorized Town Manager Rick McGuire to sign a settlement with two state agencies during its Monday night meeting. Under the settlement terms, VTrans will pay the town $60,573.75 and the Vermont Military Department, which owns the Armory, will pay the town $573.75.

The two state agencies had refused to pay the townwide stormwater fee, saying the town does not have the authority to bill them. However, other state agencies or state-affiliated groups—the Vermont State Police and Vermont Technical College—paid without question.

The town argued that the state statute gives them authority to charge a fee on all parcels in town, and Williston filed a suit against the state to seek payment.

“All those contributing to the environmental damage caused by the discharge of stormwater runoff into the receiving body of water should be held financially responsible for the pollution that they cause,” Town Manager Rick McGuire wrote in a memo to the Selectboard in May. “It is unfair for the state government to require municipalities to undertake these investments and then exempt themselves from payment.”

The settlement covers the amount the Military Department owes, minus interest and penalties through the current billing period. It also covers the amount VTrans owes through June 2016, less interest, penalties and credits to which the agency is or will soon be entitled under the town’s regulations. The town also shaved off $10,000 “as a way of settling this, because if we don’t settle we’re going to have legal fees and you always run the risk of losing, or having a decision that’s not quite what you wanted,” McGuire said.

The agreement does not affect any other state agencies.

The town’s ability to charge VTrans may be short lived.

VTrans is currently drafting changes to the state’s stormwater laws to propose to the Vermont Legislature in January. The changes would exempt VTrans from municipal stormwater fees, rents or charges. Instead, legislation would provide for an annual grant to MS4 communities that have set up stormwater fees. MS4 communities are municipalities or entities that are required by state and federal law to set up their own stormwater systems. The federal government has declared Williston and 12 other municipalities, as well as three institutional entities, in the state as Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems, also known as MS4.

An MS4 is a system of conveyances—drains, ditches, gutters, etc.—that collects and discharges stormwater into state or federal waters.

McGuire met with officials last week, and said VTrans, Williston and other MS4 communities plan to work together to come up with a legislation proposal that benefits all parties.

“From the town’s standpoint, part of the problem is towns are strictly creatures of the state. The state can change any state law that affects municipalities any time they choose, including the law that allows us to charge state agencies stormwater fees,” McGuire said. “If there’s going to be a change anyway, potentially, it’s better to work together with VTrans and the other communities to have a say in at least what the legislation will be proposed as.”

He added that if Williston, VTrans and other towns propose the changes as a united front, the proposal is less likely to get tweaked in a way that is less beneficial to the town.