An advisory panel assisting Albemarle staff with the creation of a county-wide fee to pay for water quality programs spent Monday evening giving feedback on how ratepayers could receive credits.
“The credit would deal with what kind of discounts you get on that bill based on what you’re doing on your property,” said David Bulova, with the firm Amec Foster Wallace.
Albemarle hired the company to help with the development of a stormwater utility fee to raise funds to pay for programs to improve water quality. There is a mandate from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to reduce the amount of sediment and other pollutants that reach the Chesapeake Bay.
Virginia localities require a permit from the DEQ for municipal stormwater systems that eventually release runoff into rivers and streams in the bay’s watershed. To get the permit, cities and counties must demonstrate they are taking steps to comply with an Environmental Protection Agency goal to dramatically reduce pollution by 2025 through a process known as the Total Maximum Daily Load.
That could include additional infrastructure to slow rainwater that flows off a developed property, replacement of leaking and deteriorating pipes or other drainage improvements to address flooding.
The last time a cost estimate for the 10-year water resources protection program was given to supervisors was in 2016. At the time, the county’s environment services chief, Greg Harper, told supervisors the price tag would be $2.5 million for the first year, scaling up to $5 million for the 10th year.
Since 2014, supervisors have allocated 7 cents of the real estate property tax rate toward the water resources protection program. That would not cover the full cost of the program staff believes is needed to comply with the DEQ.
Harper said the county will need to obtain a new stormwater permit in 2018 and again in 2023. That could affect the rate of the stormwater fee that eventually will be charged. During the last permit process, the county received more credits toward the TMDL than had been expected due to capital projects for new development that already had been built.
“The Chesapeake Bay model is going to be updated again and we’re not sure how that will look,” Harper said. “We’re presuming we won’t have made as much as progress as we think we’ve made, given all the stuff we have done to date.”
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said it was a surprise when the county received credits, and that that could change if the DEQ changes its interpretation.
“We’ll take the surprise as long as we can get it but there could be a change,” Mallek said.
Supervisors reaffirmed support for the fee last September, and the target date to begin charging the fee is June 2019. To get there, the board will need to adopt a detailed ordinance with specifics about what the rate will be.
Members of the Water Resources Funding Advisory Committee have stated they want there to be a “robust” policy that gives credit for steps taken by property owners to mitigate the effects of stormwater runoff on their own land or structures.
Bulova said that when considering how to structure credits, the county will need to determine what factors to base them on. Should credit be given for the amount of pollutants removed from water? Should credit be given for water retention ponds that may slow flooding but not eliminate any chemical pollutants?
“Charlottesville has a sliding scale where you put in the efficiency and it figures out how much credit you get for that,” Bulova said, referring to the city’s stormwater fee program.
Bulova said the credits have to match up with the public good, meaning they have to ensure that water quality is being improved. He used examples from Charlottesville and Falls Church that incentivize property owners to make changes on their property.
In Charlottesville, the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District will help pay for rain gardens, pet waste stations, landscaping and other methods. This does not necessarily reduce the stormwater fee.
In Falls Church, property owners can get a 10 percent credit on their fee if they plant trees, volunteer their time or create and certify a nutrient-reduction plan.
“The idea is to give people a chance to do things on their property, and if you get enough points, you get a credit,” Bulova said.
At its July meeting, the committee tentatively agreed that county-owned property should be billed, but wanted to see what the financial impact would be.
Bulova presented that information on Monday and said the county tentatively would have enough impervious surface to pay for 2,949 billing units on county land and 15,857 billing units for school-owned property. The exact cost is not known because the rate has not yet been set.
“If the county charges itself, you are charging the cost out among all property owners so your rate goes down, but that number comes out of the property tax rate,” Bulova said.
The fee would not apply to county, state or federal roads.
The University of Virginia has its own stormwater utility fee to raise money to comply with its own DEQ permit.
Harper said supervisors will be briefed many times over the next few months as the final decision point nears.