’Tis the season of giving and receiving. A few days before Thanksgiving, Queen City residents breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Burlington Electric Department announced it wouldn’t seek a planned 5.9 percent rate increase in 2009. But on December 15, the Burlington City Council authorized the creation of a new stormwater management program.
Pending council approval this month, a new ratepayer “impervious surface fee” on residential, commercial and industrial water bills will begin in April. It will generate $500,000 the first year — a recession concession — and then double to bring in $1 million annually for each subsequent year. The stormwater program will be administered by the city’s Department of Public Works.
Burlington already raises about $405,000 annually through the wastewater fund, the street tax and the general fund for dealing with stormwater issues. The new program will replace these sources. It was designed by an eight-member Stormwater Task Force formed two years ago by Mayor Bob Kiss.
The basic idea behind impervious-surface fees is that property owners pay for stormwater services based on the relative amount of impervious surface area — think pavement and concrete — on their properties. A single-family home will pay a flat rate of $18 the first year, $37 after that. Other property types will pay a fee based on the building’s exact quantity of impervious surface area. A commercial business would probably pay about $163, then $326. Industrial properties would be looking at a $900 annual expenditure that would bump up in subsequent years to around $2000.
City councilor and mayoral candidate Andy Montroll says the new regulations were approved after a public comment process and review by three council committees. He expects his fellow councilors will approve funding for the stormwater program at an upcoming meeting.
According to Montroll, the new program makes sense for two reasons. First, he says, it’s a more equitable way of raising money for stormwater management. Second, since the new regulations include provisions for increased enforcement and monitoring, they will help Burlington come into compliance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations on water quality.
Many Burlington properties are too small to fall under the Agency of Natural Resources’ jurisdiction, explains Scott Gustin, a senior planner at Burlington’s Department of Planning & Zoning. However, he adds, stormwater runoff from lots of small properties has a major impact on water quality in Lake Champlain.
That’s because stormwater — i.e., rain or snowmelt that can’t penetrate into the ground because of surfaces such as roads, buildings and parking lots — can pick up nasty chemicals on its way to local watersheds. Burlington’s steep hills exacerbate stormwater runoff, according to a report by the city’s Department of Planning & Zoning, causing paint, oil and antifreeze to accumulate in Burlington Bay, the Winooski River, the Englesby Brook and nearby wetlands.
Ever since the ANR issued the city an EPA-approved, stormwater-management permit in 2003, Burlington administrators have been struggling to, as Gustin puts it, “get our act together.” In 2003, the city helped establish the Chittenden Countywide Regional Stormwater Education Program and, according to a DPW report, “informally” began enforcing state stormwater protocols on new construction projects. In 2007, city councilors included a section on erosion prevention in their rewrite of Burlington’s zoning ordinance.
But the Queen City could do more when it comes to stormwater management, according to state and local officials. Indeed, a January 2008 performance audit by a Montpelier nonprofit noted that municipal stormwater-management regulations in the Lake Champlain basin are “likely missing or inadequate.” And as Scott Gustin told the Burlington Planning Commission in June, enforcement of stormwater regs on local construction projects remains “pretty lax.”
Assuming the Burlington City Council approves the impervious-surface fee request, Burlington would become the second municipality in Vermont to implement such a fee. The first, South Burlington, established the state’s first stormwater utility in 2005 and will receive an award from the New England Water Environment Association later this month for its work on stormwater management.
Linda Seavey, director of campus planning for the University of Vermont, says the university supports the new stormwater program on the condition it receives financial credits from the city for its existing stormwater-management infrastructure. Erik Hoekstra, a development manager with Redstone Commercial Group who serves on mayor Kiss’s Citizen Budget Task Force, is also a believer — with one caveat: that DPW enforce stormwater protocols without hiring any new personnel. Burlington opted not to create a separate stormwater utility — as South Burlington did — to keep costs contained.
Kelly Devine, executive director of the Burlington Business Association, says she hopes the new program won’t discourage downtown development. Also, “We need to let people know this is coming and help them understand it,” she cautions. “Because if a charge shows up on people’s bills and they don’t know what they’re paying for, you’re going to get a lot of pushback from the public.”