Stormwater utility budget approved

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Town planner Karen Purinton listens to resident feedback on the proposed stormwater utility at a Colchester Selectboard meeting in late March. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Selectboard members unanimously approved the budget for a new stormwater utility last Tuesday, increasing the annual fund from about $542,000 to nearly $875,000.

The utility will charge a yearly fee based on the amount of impervious surface homeowners have on their land. The old system determined payments based on assessed property value.

All single-family residential properties with no more than three dwellings and less than one acre of impervious surface will pay $52.39 a year, public works director Bryan Osborne said.

Any land that doesn’t fit these parameters will garner a charge based on a direct assessment of its unique quantity of impervious surface and estimated contribution to the town’s runoff. That includes tax-exempt organizations, like churches and schools.

That means some property owners will see increases much higher than the flat fee, a searchable online database of every Colchester landowner shows.

The utility is based on so-called equivalent residential units, or ERUs, which are calculated by averaging single-family residence lots’ impervious surfaces. One ERU is equivalent to about one-tenth of an acre, town planner Karen Purinton said last month.

These surfaces include buildings, paved areas and dirt roads that don’t absorb rainfall and create stormwater runoff, often heavily laden with bacteria and sediment by the time it reaches streams and rivers.

Excess phosphorus accelerates plant growth, while too much sediment can prevent natural vegetation; both can harm aquatic life, Osborne said. The town estimates all needed stormwater improvements would cost around $35 million.

According to an aerial study conducted by the University of Vermont’s Spatial Analysis Lab, the town has about 1,862 acres or 2.9 square miles of total impervious surface.

A part of the town’s clean water initiative, the utility project stemmed from a key recommendation issued in the Integrated Water Resources Management Plan, a four-year water quality study funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency obtained in 2009.

Through the months-long public hearing process, several residents raised concerns about the new model. Some, like Murray Thompson, fell into the directly assessed category and were quoted increases that topped $500.

At the most recent selectboard meeting, resident Tyler Anderson lamented the plan, saying it increased the burden on an already overloaded populace.

Both men also expressed concern about the utility’s future budget, which will be approved by the selectboard rather than by popular vote. In March, Osborne said the “runaway freight train” scenario was highly unlikely because of a pattern of fiscal restraint in Colchester.

In both cases, members of the selectboard encouraged residents to remain vocal at any future deliberations.

Osborne said the change aimed to make fees more equitable, pointing to the nearly $30,000 St. Michael’s College will be required to kick in under the new utility. The private school is currently tax-exempt.

The utility is slated to officially begin operation on July 1. Residents can find their individual estimated cost increase in a searchable database at http://bit.ly/2oyduHS.

Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the approved funding increase. The stormwater budget has increased from approximately $542,000 to about $875,000, not from $333,000 to $875,000. We regret the error.