Albemarle County Super-visors called a time-out as the date for a decision on imposing a storm water management fee on county property owners drew near, but what the facts call for is a punt of the whole idea.
Gazette readers are reminded of an in-depth analysis of Albemarle’s impact on pollution in Chesapeake Bay, and the worthiness of the fee policy as a solution, by our house scientist, Dirk Nies, that appeared in our September 2015 issue. The story is titled “The County’s Rising Water Programs.” Look for it on the Gazette’s website.
The Albemarle County Farm Bureau has come out against the fee, dubbing it a “rain tax” that would use aerial photographs to calculate the area of roofs of houses, barns and sheds, driveways (including gravel ones, as well as packed dirt farm roads), and parking lots on a parcel and impose a fee—not a tax, because that could not be imposed on tax-exempt properties such as churches, schools, or public properties such as fire or rescue squad stations.
Let’s leave aside whether these calculations would be accurate and look at a few points the story addresses about the goal of reducing pollution in the bay and Albemarle’s share of the problem.
First, water runoff from impervious surfaces does not, in and of itself, contribute the chemical pollutants of concern —nitrogen or phosphorus—to the environment. In most rural situations, rainwater runoff from impervious surfaces does not significantly contribute sediment loads into surface waters.
Albemarle County contributes 3 percent or less of the pollutants of concern (nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment) entering the Chesapeake Bay from the bay’s entire multi-state watershed. The real pollution threat to the bay comes from the Susquehanna River, which drains central Pennsylvania, as well as runoff from the vast metropolitan areas of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Further, the pollutants of concern that come from Albemarle (flowing in the James River) enter near the mouth the bay at Hampton Roads, where bay waters are in good condition and affected by ocean tides.
Even if the County’s multi-million dollar water program Action Plan were fully implemented, pollutant loads contributed countywide to the bay would decrease by less than a quarter of one percent! In other words, the proposed program when fully implemented achieves negligible water quality improvement. And improvements would be so small as to be non-measurable in most cases, making review of the program’s effectiveness impossible.
The County claims it is seeking a funding structure that is equitable, stable, simple and feasible. The proposed utility fee fails to meet any of these criteria. If specific projects can be identified, perhaps along Rt. 29 North, that could effectively reduce harmful runoff, these should be handled routinely as County Capital Improvements Projects and stacked up with other public needs.
Taxpayer oversight of government expenditures is weakened by the proliferation of fees that are outside the general fund budgeting process. These fees serve to grow local government, in this case with negligible impact on the ostensible goal.