From the Editor: No “Rain Tax”

2593
The Chesapeake Bay

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 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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for your fact filled article from the Editor, No “Rain Tax.” It touched on all the important points necessary to understand why this utilty fee is not a good fit for our mostly rural county. Our Board of Supervisors wants to implement this plan, then spend a portion of our money to “educate” us about the importance of being good stewards of our streams and rivers.

    My neighbor, Joe Ford, brought this up at a recent White Hall town meeting with Ann Mallek. Joe had done a great job researching and preparing his argument opposing the “Stormwater Utility” and fired questions that mostly went unanswered. After hearing his compelling argument, I decided to attend related meetings and gather information.

    Through information obtained in a meetings, the county website, and articles like this, think it is a terrible idea. Groups around the county are preparing to fight this action. More information to follow.

  2. There are many factual inaccuracies in this editorial that unfortunately have now contributed to the deliberate misinformation already spread by the Farm Bureau. Here are some key points:

    * While federal and state mandates to clean up the Chesapeake Bay are big factor, we also have many other contaminated streams and rivers like Moore’s Creek, the Meadowcreek, the Hardware River and the Rivanna river. It is also our responsibility to make those waterways clean and safe for county residents.
    * We are already paying for some of this so-called “rain tax” through the general fund. If we don’t adopt a fee system then WE WILL STILL PAY but through our property taxes. In effect small property owners and rural residents will end up subsidizing the likes of Albemarle Square with their vast sea of unused pavement.
    * Pulling it out as a separate fee gives everyone the option make decisions about how much they choose to pay by reducing their impact. If it’s hidden in your property taxes you wont have that option.
    * This would allow the county to invest more in incentives. It it was targeted at urban residents only then rural residents would be ineligible for those incentives. If the County did an urban only program, it would make it cheaper to build and live in rural areas causing sprawl. Properly done, the fee will help protect farmland from development

    Lastly, it is objectively FALSE that “water runoff from impervious surfaces does not, in and of itself, contribute the chemical pollutants of concern —nitrogen or phosphorus—to the environment.” As excess water from rooftops and driveways flows across the surface of lawns on it’s way to local streams, it picks up pet waste, fertilizer, and other contaminants. Excess stormwater also causes “flashing” in local streams and rivers which scours soil from the banks of waterways resulting in additional sediment, nitrogen, phosphate and bacteria in local streams. Wait until the next big storm and go take a peek at Moore’s Creek or the Hardware river to see what I mean. Indeed, one inch of rain falling on an acre of pavement creates 27,000 gallons of pollution (http://www.cbf.org/PollutedRunoffReport)

    Whether we as a community choose to adopt a stormwater fee or not, lets all try to make sure we have the facts straight and not spread fear and misinformation. I want our rivers and streams to remain health and safe for fishing and our kids to play in. The fact that some have dangerous levels of bacteria and contaminants should be a concern for all of us and we all need to be part of the solution.

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