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F.C.’s Widstrom Answers Questions on City’s New Stormwater Utility Fee

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With real estate tax bills due this week, property owners are for the first time paying the City of Falls Church’s new Stormwater Utility Fee. The new fee seeks to address stormwater management in The Little City, including issues of water quality and quantity running into local streams like Tripp’s Run and Four Mile Run and then into the Chesapeake Bay. Sample bills and an explanation of the new fee were mailed to property owners this winter.

In response to recent storms and a greater government focus on environmental issues, City Council adopted a Watershed Management Plan in 2012 and, last spring, established a Stormwater Utility to address stormwater management, with a Stormwater Management Enterprise Fund to finance its initiatives, paid into by property owners through the Stormwater Utility Fee.

The News-Press reached out to Jason Widstrom, civil engineer for the City of Falls Church, to learn more about this new program.

In the months since the announcement of the Stormwater Utility Fee, what has been the public response? What concerns have citizens expressed?

Overall the response has been positive. Of the 214 citizens who contacted us after receiving the sample bill mailing, the main questions asked were “How I can verify my impervious area?” and “How can I get a credit?” Forty-four citizens attended the open house in March, and those two questions were the main focus there as well. After the first bills were mailed in May, the City received 40 phone calls and emails and the questions asked pertained to how to get a credit, how to verify their impervious area, and general billing concerns.

Why is the Stormwater Utility Fee being calculated separately?

The utility fee is being calculated separately from the real estate tax because the City Council wanted to base the fee on a property’s impervious surface. This is widely accepted as the most equitable option. The more impervious surface a property has, the more stormwater runoff it contributes to the City’s system. If it was based on real estate value, the fee would be more inequitable. For example, an older building that has a largely impervious lot may have a lower real estate value than a multi-use building which has less impervious surface and stormwater management facilities.

How were the Stormwater Utility Fees calculated for property owners?

The City used parcel mapping and 2009 impervious data provided by the Virginia Geographic Information Network (VGIN). VGIN’s layer consisted of all driveways, roofs, walkways, and patios. The City then reviewed all post-2009 grading plans and site plans to verify and update the 2009 layer. If any anomalies were found or reported by residents, City inspectors visited properties to verify impervious surface areas. We issued a preliminary impervious estimate in February and directed property owners to visit our online application and review the data so that we could make the changes.

What is the average Stormwater Utility Fee for a property owner, and what is the range [i.e. highest and lowest fees assessed] of the fee?

The average fee for residential properties is $252 per year. The average fee for commercial properties is $2,444.13. Lowest fee is $3.43 and the highest is $44,294.40.

How much money do you believe the fees will net this year for the Stormwater Management Enterprise Fund, and how will that money be used?

Approximately $1.5M is budgeted for stormwater. Revenue collected by the utility fee is placed in a stormwater management enterprise fund that can only be used for the City’s stormwater management program. The funds pay for City staff (e.g. engineers, inspectors, maintenance crew, and supervisor) that work to clean and repair 27 miles of stormwater pipes, 1.5 miles of open stream, 1,400 inlets and manholes; to design and oversee the construction of capital projects; and to manage the City’s state-required stormwater permit, Erosion and Sediment Control Program, and floodplain program. Additionally, the fund is used to purchase construction materials for repairs and new infrastructure, construction equipment, vehicles, and associated fuel and maintenance costs; and to procure contracted services – specialized cleaning and inspection, street sweeping, deep excavation, engineering consultants, surveying, and utility location.

The Stormwater Utility Fee is calculated based on impervious area on a property. What is impervious area, what is pervious area?

Impervious area is any surface that water cannot penetrate into the ground naturally. In Virginia, the Department of Environmental Quality publishes the Virginia Stormwater Management Handbook, which defines impervious as, “a surface composed of any material that significantly impedes or prevents natural infiltration of water into soil. Impervious surfaces include, but are not limited to, roofs, buildings, streets, parking areas, and any concrete, asphalt, or compacted gravel surface.” Pervious area is any surface that water can penetrate such as soil and specially designed pervious materials (permeable concrete, permeable asphalt, etc.). Permeable materials are eligible for a credit.

What credits are available to property owners to reduce their Stormwater Utility Fee, and how can property owners become eligible for and apply for those credits?

Property owners can receive a credit by installing and maintaining a stormwater management facility (cistern, detention system, etc.) on their property and/or performing activities (rain barrels, new tree plantings, conservation landscaping, etc.) outlined in the Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan. Information on the credit program can be found at www.fallschurchva.gov/Stormwatercredits.

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