Shelburne considering new stormwater fee vs. tax

Even with summer thunderstorms behind us, handling stormwater remains at the forefront of municipal planners’ minds in local towns. With state stormwater mitigation requirements to meet and funds needed to complete mandated projects, the Shelburne Selectboard recently discussed introducing a stormwater fee to raise money.

At their Sept. 26 meeting, the Selectboard viewed a presentation from South Burlington Deputy Director of Public Works Tom DiPietro and Shelburne Water Quality Superintendent Chris Robinson. The Munroe Brook watershed in Shelburne has been identified as impaired, or showing evidence of environmental damage. The presentation pegged the bill for implementing a restoration plan at $4.7. The town has from 2019 through 2031 to complete the 18 projects included in the plan, including constructing new ponds and retrofitting existing stormwater infrastructure to improve its functionality.

The town’s stormwater expenses are currently paid by taxes, DiPietro noted, but another option is a user fee. While taxes are easy to collect and are largely unnoticeable on a month-to-month basis, a user fee does have advantages, he suggested. Robinson later explained that payments generated from a fee are placed in a dedicated fund that is not spent elsewhere, and the fee is equally applied across all properties. The fee approach is more equitable than taxes, which don’t apply to tax-exempt properties even though they, too, generate stormwater.

At Tuesday’s Stormwater Advisory Committee meeting, Williston’s Stormwater Coordinator James Sherrard described his town’s approach to a stormwater utility, noting that South Burlington and Burlington already had utilities. Sherrard noted that “user” is a broad term when it comes to stormwater – even anyone who drives on a road benefits from stormwater management. He added that a key aspect of implementing a stormwater fee is communicating with the public about it in advance.

The conversation is happening now because flow restoration plan requirements have sent costs skyrocketing, said Robinson. In addition to stormwater control, the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, or MS4 permit also mandates phosphorus control, and with “competing large costs coming up,” the possibility of a partnership with South Burlington may save some money, Robinson noted. “There’s efficiency in scale, and if we can do stuff on a regional basis rather than an individual municipality basis, I think there can be some savings.”

Project manager Ann Janda noted in an email that maintaining Shelburne’s existing stormwater program costs about $250,000 annually, while bringing on new flow restoration projects would add about $150,000 more per year. To raise $400,000 annually, the stormwater fee for a single-family residence would be $42.85 per year or $3.57 per month, according to DiPietro’s presentation.

DiPietro explained in a subsequent interview that the town’s MS4 permit also requires the town to monitor impaired watersheds; in Shelburne, the Munroe Brook watershed is the only stormwater-impaired watershed.

Impaired watersheds are identified through continual monitoring of Vermont streams by state biologists, who study fish and other organisms to determine if streams meet standards; an impaired stream requires management, DiPietro said. From here, a total maximum daily load, is identified as a “pollution budget,” DiPietro explained.

Establishing the daily load limit acts as a cleanup plan, said Department of Environmental Conservation Stormwater Program Manager Padraic Monks, because it says how much pollutant a waterway can receive daily while still meeting standards. Biological and chemical criteria both inform the state’s assessments of its waterways.

Munroe Brook’s fish and macroinvertebrate populations both showed that the stream is impaired under the biological criteria, Monks said. In that case, the brook requires a flow restoration plan as part of a larger stormwater management program. Too much stormwater flow is causing erosion in the brook, Monks explained.

The challenge of stormwater-related municipal expenses has been in front of the selectboard for some time. At a May 2016 selectboard meeting, Trudell Consulting Engineers President Jeremy Matosky made a presentation on a study of the Munroe Brook watershed. He explained that as a condition of the town’s permit to release stormwater into state waterways, it must complete a number of projects to manage stormwater over a 20-year period that began in 2013. Wetland permits, legal problems, and construction itself have all created challenges during a similar project in a nearby town, Matosky said.

Matosky also noted that Shelburne had some time to prepare: “The good news is you have a long time to implement this; the bad news is it’s mandated by EPA and it’s unfunded.”

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