City Hall eyes drainage costs

Friday, October 30, 2009

As local high school football games were being rescheduled because of rain, Lewisburg leaders were realizing that responsibilities under federal stormwater control laws come with costs.

And while smart planning - like dodging a stormy game night - can placate the feds, it can also hold down on the cost of maintaining stormwater detention ponds that, according to a local businessman, might be as simple as a farm pond.

However, "I don't want to take a pig in a poke," Councilman Ronald McRady said during a Tuesday afternoon informational meeting in City Hall with Jim Patterson, environmental manager for St. John Engineering of Manchester, the city's consulting engineer on these issues.

The federal Clean Water Act applies to Lewisburg now because of a state decision. Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation had to examine the city because the 2000 census found more than 10,000 people here. That led to a conclusion that there are enough people per acre who affect drainage and that there is an "impaired stream flowing through the center of the city," Patterson said. Rock Creek's water does not support all the normal uses and ecological systems associated with such streams.

Since the Clean Water Act calls for buffer zones to cleanse surface water as it drains to streams, and stormwater detention ponds to reduce the flow and erosion power of drainage, Mayor Barbara Woods expressed concern for city costs.

"That," Patterson said, "becomes the issue."

Taxpayers don't want to pay for maintenance of such structures, the consulting engineer said.

And Jim Bingham, chairman of the city planning commission who runs his own local engineering service on Lewisburg's public square, offered insights of his own.

If it's going to be a homeowner's responsibility to maintain a detention basin, then when the city adopts required revisions to its stormwater rules, it ought to "tie a big red bow on it" to make sure it's "flagged" and can't be ignored by the owner.

While current owners have common law protections including grandfather rights against changes to established contracts, overriding federal requirements have resulted in stormwater fees being imposed on property owners. Residents of Franklin pay a monthly stormwater management fee as that city has responded to requirements of the Clean Water Act.

If Lewisburg is going to leave maintenance of drainage controls to property owners, then it should be well known "especially at mortgage time," when someone is buying a lot where they'd be building their own new home.

"Nobody knows what they're signing" when entering a mortgage, according to repeated remarks during the meeting attended by Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr., stormwater director Cory Pleas, his predecessor R.L. Williams and Marshall County building Codes Director Don Nelson.

Since erosion control systems are being required, it remained unclear who should own them, although local businessman Doug Martin, a former county commissioner, pointed out that farm ponds collect rain and release it later through a small pipe.

Martin recommended against having homeowner associations own the stormwater controls.

The mayor advocated rain gardens as mentioned by Nelson.

An earthen berm could make a shallow collection area that grows plants that absorb water and survive in wet conditions, Woods said.

The discussion included various other aspects of the federal regulations and was expected to resume as the city fine-tunes its new ordinance.