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May 08, 2009

County officials worry that new state stormwater policy will encourage rural development

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By Daniel Nairn
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Wednesday, May 8, 2009

20090505-DCRimage

Albemarle County has been working toward concentrating new development into designated growth areas  for many years, but proposed state regulations could force a change in plans. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has proposed a new set of stormwater management guidelines that could have the unintended consequence of promoting low-density rural development over more compact forms of growth.

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Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20090505-Stormwater

At least, that’s the conclusion reached by both Mark Graham, Albemarle County Director of Community Development, and County Engineer Glenn Brooks. They made their comments to the Albemarle County Planning Commission during a work session on May 5, 2009.  Their concerns were echoed by at least one Commissioner.

Download Download Mark Graham's memo on the new stormwater policy

Download Download Graham's powerpoint from the work session

“The County needs to take proactive steps now to defend their [comprehensive] plan, the forms and the densities, if this program gets enacted, otherwise we’re not going to see development take place in the growth areas the way it’s being proposed, said Commissioner Don Franco (Rio).

The purpose of the new DCR regulations is to preserve streams, rivers, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay by decreasing the level of pollutants entering the waterways through stormwater run-off. DCR has been under a high level of pressure from the General Assembly to make more progress toward improving Virginia’s water quality, and the new rules are intended to add some regulatory force behind these goals.

The policy  is complex, but the basic strategy is to lower the threshold of nutrients allowed to enter waterways and increase the scope of projects to be evaluated.

Much of the responsibility for implementing the new requirements will be passed on to the local level. Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville will be required to adopt a stormwater management program in compliance with these regulations. The local governments will be assessed a hefty fine for any violations, which, as Graham says, is the first time a “hammer” has been held over localities for stormwater management. Because of the complexity of the requirements, Graham said administration and enforcement could be very labor-intensive. The increased fees will be collected by the local governments and shared among local and state governments to cover the administrative costs.

Graham and Brooks both recognize the importance of managing water quality, but said they are critical of the particular approach DCR is taking.

 “The state, I think, is fairly naive about this,” Brooks said. “I don’t think they’ve had a hands-on approach with a lot of these scenarios.” He argues that, however complex the formulas for compliance are, they cannot fit all of the cases that engineers deal with on a regular basis. Furthermore, the sheer complexity could lead to confusion, “gaming” the system for economic advantage, and compromise on many projects. Brooks claims the current program isn’t working, and he does not understand why they would expand upon a faulty model.

Graham does not see this policy as compatible with Albemarle County’s growth management aspirations. He says, “it’s much, much easier and cheaper to comply with the requirements in [sprawling development] than in a tight, neighborhood model form of development.” Since grandfathering is still unresolved, it is at least possible that some developments already approved by the County may not be able to be built as planned under the new regulations.

In response to these challenges, the state has passed enabling legislation to allow localities to set up a Nutrient Exchange Program, which would function much like the Transfer of Development Rights systems  that have been discussed in Albemarle County in recent years. Developments that create an unacceptable water quality impact may purchase “stormwater offsets” from  another property within the same tributary watershed. Also, a development can meet the standards by incorporating something from a select list of Best Management Practices, which includes green roofs, rainwater collection devices, and permeable pavement. While these qualifications do open up the possibility of development within urbanized areas, there would still exist a substantial cost differential between urban and rural development. County planners are worried that economic incentives may push development outward.

The effective date for these regulations is expected to be July 2010, after which local governments will have approximately 15 months to develop their new stormwater management programs.

TIMELINE FOR PODCAST

  • 1:05 – Mark Graham outlines new State stormwater management
  • 2:40 – Requirement for Albemarle County to have a plan
  • 4:10 - Technical criteria for local stormwater management plan
  • 6:05 – Proposed changes in the total allowable nutrient load
  • 9:00 – How will this effect development potential?
  • 11:20 – State holds a “hammer” of a large fine for non-compliance
  • 13:20 – Best management practices are provided to off-set
  • 15:20 – New fees that are proposed by the State
  • 17:20 – Staff thinks policy is inconsistent with managing sprawl
  • 18:40 – Waiver procedure and grandfathering may be difficult
  • 10:35 – Graham thinks agricultural run-off is a bigger problem
  • 21:30 – Brooks thinks current DCR erosion control model isn’t working
  • 25:20 – Counties have more expertise than State-level on stormwater
  • 27:20 – Franco thinks County may need to amend comp plan to meet requirements
  • 30:00 – How a transfer of nutrients system might work
  • 33:40 – It could be difficult for transportation projects to comply.

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