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July 03, 2009

High Growth Coalition meets in Culpeper to discuss new state regulations impacting land use and transportation

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By Julia Glendening
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Friday, July 3, 2009

The Virginia Coalition of High Growth Communities, is a membership association for local government officials from counties in Virginia with rapid residential development. Also known as the High Growth Coalition, the group met on June 29, 2009 in Culpeper to listen to speakers and discuss three major topics: the regulation of alternative onsite sewage systems; new stormwater management requirements; and VDOT’s secondary street requirements. The focus of the discussion was to examine how local governments will be influenced by changes in legislation approved by the General Assembly and speakers stressed how important it is for local officials to make their opinions heard.  Albemarle County is a member of the Coalition and was represented by Supervisors Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller), Ann Mallek (White Hall), and Mark Graham, the County’s Director of Community Development.

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Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems (AOSS)

According to the Code of Virginia (§ 32.1-163), a conventional onsite sewage system consists of one or more septic tanks flowing to a gravity distributed drainfield. An alternative onsite sewage system does not have the characteristics of a conventional system and does not flow to a point source discharge, such as a pipe.  An AOSS can treat sewage with a device other than a septic tank, such as a media filter, which uses other ways to separate the sewage, for example with peat, byproducts of coal, or foam cubes. Pressurized systems are also used instead of gravity to distribute the wastewater within a drainfield.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed two bills (HB 1788  and SB 1276) declaring that local governments cannot prohibit the use of alternative onsite sewage systems, both of which went into effect on July 1, 2009. Previously, a building permit could be withheld if the soil on site would not support a traditional septic system and public sewer was not available to the property.  In compliance with the interim requirements of the new legislation, alternative systems installed after July 1, 2009 will have to be operated and maintained by the most stringent policies declared by the manufacturer, the local government, or the state. These will be replaced by the Board of Health emergency regulations in April 6, 2010 and final regulations at the end of 2010.

In an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow, Jeff McDaniel, local Environmental Health Manager for the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), said in 2008 about 74 alternative systems were approved in Albemarle, Fluvanna, Louisa, Greene, and Nelson Counties. McDaniel said Albemarle did not prohibit the use of alternative systems prior to this year’s legislation and he thought the legislation would have more of an effect on other regions of Virginia.

Albemarle County's Mark Graham, told Charlottesville Tomorrow that, before the new legislation went into effect this week, alternative onsite sewage systems were allowed only when an existing conventional system had failed. Graham said a developer previously had to demonstrate a conventional system could be implemented in order to get a building plan approved. Under the new law, an alternative system could be specified up front and local government would not be able to deny a development right.

Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) expressed concern about the potential for increased residential growth on previously undevelopable land in an update she gave to the Board of Supervisors at their July 1 meeting.

“We have regarded whether land [percolates for septic] or not as a land use control,” said Thomas. “Now that will no longer be a controlling factor.”

McDaniel noted that about 5 to 10% of building permits with conventional sewage systems have been denied in the past year due to various limiting factors, such as soil or location limitations.

“I see it [alternative systems] as a positive thing,” said McDaniel. “Conventional systems treat the sewage, but alternative systems clean the sewage to a different level. There are places where alternative systems can be used to better treat the effluent.”

He emphasized the importance of properly maintaining all types of sewage systems and said he saw the new maintenance regulations as a way to improve VDH’s existing procedures.

“I think we’re going to clarify some better maintenance and monitoring of not just alternative but conventional [systems],” said McDaniel.

Panelists at the Coalition meeting, however, discussed potential problems with the AOSS regulations. Trapper Davis, from the Coastal Plains Environmental Group, LLC, said he maintains these systems and was also concerned with the cost for residential clients, which is currently $400 for a year of maintenance. He said that may deter people from keeping their sewage systems properly maintained. Davis also said he believed industry professionals do not have enough knowledge about proper maintenance for AOSS and this could be a problem once the interim regulations go into effect.

Bob Lee, from the Loudoun County Health Department, said many homeowners are unaware their sewage system is an AOSS, which could create a problem for trying to identify systems for inspection. Lee also emphasized the importance of establishing quantitative performance standards.

Allen Knapp, from the Virginia Department of Health, said the frequency and cost of monitoring are major issues for the implementation of AOSS.

Stormwater Management Requirements

The state is currently changing storm water management regulations for construction, local programs, and permit fees in order to increase water quality standards, in compliance with EPA standards for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The Virginia Stormwater Management Program (VSMP) was created in 2004 with House Bill 1177, which authorized local authorities to implement stormwater management programs. The Soil and Water Conservation Board proposed amendments to parts I, II, III, and XIII of VSMP regulations on September 25, 2008. The amendments are still being discussed and there will be a 60-day public comment ending on August 21, 2009.

Ryan Brown, Policy and Planning Assistant Director for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, described these amendments and said there will be a stricter phosphorous standard for new development from 0.45 lbs per acre per year to 0.28. The amendments also propose a decrease in nutrient levels for land redevelopment. Currently the standard is a 10% reduction to the predevelopment load and the amendments will require a 20% reduction in nutrients from the predevelopment load.

“This addresses new development and prevents us from making the situation worse,” said Brown.

Lisa Ochsenhirt, of Aqualaw, PLC, described the obligations for local governments in order to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay. She stated the three year milestone goal is to increase the pace of reduction by 86% for nitrogen and 52% for phosphorous during 2009-2011. She said this reduction would cost Virginia’s state government a projected $1.2 billion. Ochsenhirt stated the consequences would include a tightening of regulations and permits, an increase in reporting and auditing, and an increase in lawsuits by the EPA, state, or citizens. She warned the High Growth Coalition that the restrictions would hit the high growth communities the hardest.

Mike Flagg, Director of Public Works for Hanover County, said Hanover had calculated the expense to retrofit areas with stormwater treatment from 2005 data and determined it would cost $1,525 a person. Flagg also declared it would cost $500 or more per lot to maintain the nutrient regulations for stormwater, all of which could create more expensive growth areas.

“We may actually be promoting sprawl with some of these rules,” said Flagg.

Thomas also commented at the Board of Supervisors meeting on how the stormwater regulations will affect Albemarle County.

“Our main concern I think in this community is that if you regulate stormwater in the city or in the urban area more stringently you’re just going to squish development out into the rural area because it will be a lot less expensive in the rural area,” said Thomas.

VDOT Secondary Street Acceptance Requirements (SSAR)

Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has developed Secondary Street Acceptance Requirements (SSAR), which will become mandatory July 1, 2009. The SSAR includes three goals: ensuring the connectivity of road and pedestrian networks; minimizing impervious surface area; and addressing performance bonding needs of new secondary streets. The Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) approved the SSAR in February 2009 and a transition period was instated from March 9 to June 30.

Ted McCormack, the Director of Governmental Affairs for the Virginia Association of Counties (VACo), outlined the requirements, which included a calculated interconnectivity index for each neighborhood. He stressed the importance of interconnectivity and said it would lead to less construction, increased pedestrian safety, a faster emergency vehicle response time, and a more efficient network overall. He said VDOT has determined that on average throughout Virginia, 10% of all trips are walking trips, demonstrating the lack of pedestrian accessibility.

Nick Donahue, Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Virginia, said VDOT has taken a position of not widening the right of way
to reduce congestion because they believe connectivity is a more successful solution.

“It’s much more cost effective for us to have connectivity so that people’s trips to school, the grocery store, etc. are on the local roads than it is for VDOT to widen the main roads,” said Donahue.

Donahue also answered questions about the impact a reduced state budget has had on VDOT. He said there have been cutbacks in many areas due to the decrease from $8.7 billion in revenue in FY2008 to $5.4 billion in FY2010.

TIMELINE FOR PODCAST FROM JULY 1, 2009 BOARD OF SUPERVISORS MEETING

  • 01:45 – Dennis Rooker asks about the Virginia Health Department’s view of alternative sewage systems
  • 04:45 – David Slutzky discusses the possibility of a cap and trade program
  • 06:45 – Rooker asks what local authority will regulate agricultural runoff
  • 07:55 – Ann Mallek comments on other counties’ setback requirements

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