“You came out with me, Larry Lamb, and Phil James just over a year ago to dedicate the rock chimney to families who were displaced by the Shenandoah National Park—remember?” Keith Ford asked Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Ann Mallek at her town hall meeting at the White Hall Community Building on March 24. “So I ask you now: when all the farmers have been driven out of Albemarle County by this fee, who will build our chimney?” This was only one of many impassioned pleas by county farmers at the standing-room-only meeting, with attendance so large the crowd spilled into the foyer and out the doors. Farmers staged a “tractor protest” in opposition to the proposed storm water utility fee, with several rows of green tractors parked in the adjoining field—many sporting “No Rain Tax” banners.
At issue is how Albemarle County will fund water quality and infrastructure improvement projects going forward. These projects are currently supported with 7 cents of every dollar of the real estate tax rate from the General Fund. But as costs mount to an estimated $2.5 million per year, in September 2016 the Board of Supervisors endorsed a plan to assess a storm water utility fee on every county property owner based on the square footage of their “impervious surfaces” such as buildings, driveways, parking lots. The proposed fee has become known as the “rain tax” because it is the rain running off these surfaces that eventually drains into our waterways, carrying sediment and pollutants with it. Because it is technically not a tax, it would also be assessed on tax-exempt organizations such as churches, volunteer fire departments, and volunteer rescue squads. The rate structure and credit policy for pollution mitigation practices will be presented to the BOS at their work session on April 11 (2 p.m. at the County Office Building), at which time they will decide whether to move forward with this approach, or find another way to fund the water quality program—which is required by federal and state mandates to protect the Chesapeake Bay.
The town hall meeting got underway at 10 a.m. After Mallek dispensed with non-storm-water-related questions—including an update from Albemarle County Police Blue Ridge District Captain Derrell Byers on tax scams and brief discussions of revenue sharing, recycling, and traffic control, at 10:30 one farmer in the back shouted, “we have 55 tractors out here that need to get back to work on the farms! Fields aren’t getting plowed and corn isn’t getting sowed…. can we please move on?”
Mallek described her “storm water journey,” beginning with concerns about phosphorous, nitrogen, and sediment polluting our rivers, streams, and reservoirs. At least one third of the streams in Albemarle County are contaminated. There have even been road failures as a result of people not following existing rules—for example, bulldozing through streams. Greg Harper, Chief Environmental Officer, recently made a presentation to the BOS about phases of work underway on this issue, including using GIS to map properties accurately. These numbers, she said, will allow the BOS to make an informed decision. However, she added that based on constituent concerns from her three recent town halls and emails received, “a lot has been learned since these numbers came out, and my view has changed. While the current proposal may be unsustainable, we need some way to continue this program so we have clean water.”
Several farmers made the point that all local, and many far-flung, residents rely on the food these farms produce, and this fee will put them out of business. Sarah Henley spoke about the fear that this proposal has caused throughout the community. “You are scaring farmers who are barely hanging on as it is. I don’t trust the people on these committees who can’t see what’s right in front of them. Once this land goes to real estate developers and neighborhoods replace our farms, you will never get them back.”
When a committee of stakeholders and county planners came up with this plan, they believed it would distribute the burden of supporting clean water protection more equitably than through property taxes. Charlottesville implemented a storm water utility fee in 2014. But the Albemarle County Farm Bureau has pointed out that what works in an urban setting is not appropriate in rural areas, and the county is still 90% rural.
James (Zip) Maupin said he was related to many people in the room, including “my uncle Dan, who recently passed away, and helped to found this Ruritan Club”—which would itself be subject to the storm water utility fee if passed. He stood at the front to offer “a prayer of gratitude for our many blessings and to ask God to soften the hearts of our leaders and lead them to the right decision.” The crowd joined in the Amen. “This is an overreach by government,” he continued. “It is unconscionable to be coming after the farmers and food banks. It is an assault on our freedom and pursuit of happiness.”
Rev. Luck of Mount Olivet Baptist Church in White Hall was well prepared and spoke eloquently to the issue. “You need to do your homework,” he admonished the crowd, “stay calm, and give them enough time to get this thing squashed. The National Council of Churches has promised to send us lawyers if we need them.” He joined in the repeated, angry shouts of “I’m not paying it!” There were several rounds of thunderous applause for dramatic statements of objection to the fee.
Mallek listened, handling the intensely emotional, sometimes even raucous, discussion and answering the many questions with calm and grace. “I have heard the impacts on rural and small landowners at these town halls loud and clear,” Mallek replied to the repeated questions as to how she planned to vote on April 11. “I was a Pollyanna a couple of years ago, but I now realize the impacts are not as equal as the theory assumed. I now recognize that people cannot absorb this extra burden. It took 25 years, at high cost, just to finish the fence-outs on my own property to keep our cows out of the stream.”
“As currently proposed,” she affirmed, “I cannot support this proposal, and will be voting No.” Mallek formalized this position in the following statement to the Gazette, sent subsequent to the town hall:
After two years thinking … and hundreds of interactions with landowners about this, I am no longer in support of pursuing the utility process for funding our water infrastructure improvements. I am a deliberative learner and it has taken me longer than many wanted for me to come to this conclusion. It has become abundantly clear that the rural residents would be paying more for services received than those who live in the urban area….
This topic will be discussed by the Board of Supervisors at the April 11 meeting. I think the agenda time is 3 p.m. This is an information session. If there is still majority support for continuing any utility process, there will be an evening public hearing, likely in the summer and definitely well-advertised.
At its work session on March 29, the Board decided to table discussion of this proposed fee, and to instead explore other options for funding the county’s water resources program.