Town presents plan for stormwater utility

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

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

A year and a half after the formation of the citizen-based Stormwater Advisory Committee, town officials presented plans for a new stormwater utility at the Colchester Selectboard meeting last Tuesday.

The proposal would charge a flat annual fee of $52.39 to all single-family residential properties with no more than three dwellings and less than one acre of impervious surface.

Any land that doesn’t fit these parameters will garner a fee – which would be set annually by the selectboard, not by public vote – based on an assessment of its impervious surface and estimated contribution to the town’s runoff.

That means some property owners would 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 1/10 of an acre, town planner Karen Purinton said.

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 growth. Both can harm aquatic life, Osborne said. The town estimates all needed stormwater improvements would cost around $35 million.

“At the end of the day, the state of Vermont, unfortunately, has significant water quality issues. There’s just no getting around that,” Osborne said. “That’s one thing that everybody can agree upon.”

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.

Under the current system, stormwater fees are calculated based on properties’ assessed value, public works director Bryan Osborne said. That model doesn’t consider the unique amount of stormwater draining off each property and doesn’t collect money from tax-exempt organizations.

If adopted, the utility would increase the town’s annual stormwater budget by about $333,000 to nearly $875,000 and add a dedicated coordinator position.

Osborne told meeting attendees this would improve the Morehouse and Sunderland Brook watersheds, both areas the EPA declared “impaired by stormwater.”

The plan would also create a Malletts Bay stormwater system. The body of water currently has phosphorus levels that exceed permissible limits, according to Osborne.

Revenue from the utility would allow officials to repair or replace failing drainage, to install systems where none exist today and to pay for improvements along the town’s gravel roads, Osborne said.

Utilities like the one proposed in Colchester already exist in Burlington, South Burlington and Williston, Osborne said.

Vermont is also considering forming a similar utility system statewide under the Clean Water Initiative, Osborne said. If enacted, Colchester property owners could be asked to pay twice, but Osborne hopes the town’s preemptive actions would give it more leverage if legislation does eventually emerge.

Officials arrived at the $52.39 price tag for each unit after dividing the proposed budget by the total number of ERUs. All property owners will pay the minimum charge, even if they don’t have any impervious surface on their land.

“We believe that every property owner should be assigned at least the base fee so that we are recognizing we’re all in this as a community,” Purinton said.

Landowners will also pay for the town’s impervious surfaces, including roads, buildings and parking lots through property taxes. For the owner of a $275,000 home, the town fee will tack on an additional $18.73, totaling $71.12.

Purinton said many folks will see a dollar increase or decrease, but 135 property owners will see an increase of more than $500 a year.

One such resident is Murray Thompson. According to the database, Thompson could expect to pay nearly $550 more for stormwater on his four parcels of residential land.

Osborne said Thompson was one of about 30 homeowners who were statistical outliers in the ERU system. One of Thompson’s four lots has more than two acres of impervious surface, Osborne said, about 20 ERUs or a fee of about $1,050.

Noting the high cost, Osborne said his team moved these properties to the non-residential category to be directly assessed.

“All of a sudden, you have a huge stormwater fee,” Osborne said. “We initially took steps to address what appeared to be an inequity, but then when we saw the results of that … it was too much to charge those kind of properties.”

The committee eventually decided to cap properties like Thompson’s at 10 ERUs or about one acre, even if their impervious surface exceeded the number.

Appearing before the selectboard, Thompson said the current charge was a lot to ask of landowners but was more worried about the trajectory of future fees.

“We can almost plan that [the fee] is going to be three times that in a few years; it’s kind of open ended,” Thompson said. “There may not really be an end to it … Nobody is arguing the need, I was just seeing the handwriting on the wall.”

Osborne said the “runaway freight train” scenario is highly unlikely considering Colchester officials’ “fiscal restraint.” Board members encouraged Thompson to remain vocal at upcoming discussions.

Another high increase will be leveled at St. Michael’s College. The currently tax-exempt school will pay $29,306 under the new utility. A representative from the college was present during much of the development discussions, Osborne said.

Costco, a commercial property, would see a $3,039 increase. The site creates substantial stormwater runoff, Osborne said, but has previously paid a low fee because the warehouse is not highly valued in property assessments.

All non-residential land would be eligible for program and performance credits based on water quality and channel protection. Reductions aren’t available for single-family residential properties.

The selectboard will hold public hearings on the proposed utility on April 25 and May 23. The board is expected to vote on the measure following the May 23 meeting. If approved, the utility would officially begin operation on July 1.

The town’s searchable database can be found at http://bit.ly/2oyduHS.