City dodges water bullet

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lewisburg's City Council has declined to accept land developed to control stormwater drainage on the grounds that doing so would set a precedent and state regulations are about to change, so a wait-and-see stance was seen as prudent.

It's all a result of the 1972 Clean Water Act, its amendments and subsequent regulations to protect rivers and streams from pollutants flowing in rain after it hits the streets, parking lots, roofs, cow pastures, feed lots and drains through storm sewers.

Lewisburg didn't face such requirements until after the 2000 census showed the town's population exceeded 10,000, a trigger that created a city job, stormwater coordinator. That official enforces construction codes so new development doesn't pollute or flood nearby properties. Codes require stormwater detention systems, usually ponds, to slow rushing water, decrease erosion, provide a place for solids in muddy water to settle, and where water can seep into the ground.

Southview developers built a detention ponding area in their subdivision off South Ellington Parkway, but once their lots are sold and homes are built, they don't want to own the land required for the stormwater control system. And for now, the city doesn't want to own it either. With ownership comes maintenance responsibility.

Jeff Poarch and Cameron Coble are developing Southview on nearly 25 acres just off Yell Road across from Hometown Grocery where they're subdividing the land into 50 lots for homes to be sold from $90,000 to more than $100,000.

Mayor Barbara Woods opened the council's discussion on this issue during its July meeting by reminding the panel that it's in conjunction with the 39-page ordinance on stormwater control that she had to read aloud because of an arcane procedural rule that's being changed.

"Plus," she said, "there's MS4...

"It sounds like we're in the British Secret Service."

MS4 is the acronym for a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA).

"This is the first subdivision created with it," Woods said of Southview.

It has a stormwater detention area so pollutants might settle out before they drain into an MS4 to a river, creek, or stream.

"I've spoken with St. John Engineering," Councilman Robin Minor said of the Manchester-based consultant hired by the city to help it deal with stormwater issues. "They've spoken with TDEC," the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

"There are new regulations coming out before the end of the year on how they (detention ponds) have to be structured," Minor continued.

Water should be absorbed in them, he said, indicating that the water detention facilities might release less water than what flowed in to them.

Minor then moved to have the city refrain from accepting the property in Southview including the stormwater control system.

"But," he said, "they can bring it back up."

Councilman Quinn Brandon Stewart seconded the motion.

"I don't want the liability," Stewart said.

Neither does Minor.

Jim Patterson, an engineer with St. John Engineering, advised Minor that TDEC approved the design of the Southview developers' design for the stormwater control system so liability might not be so great, but later -- with uncertainties over state regulations -- the city might be strapped with considerable responsibilities.

Furthermore, Minor said, "If we accept this, then it may set a precedent" and the city might be compelled to take on more and more responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the drainage controls that it didn't build.

Councilman Ronald McRady advocated caution and called for more specifics.

"I don't think we want to take this one," McRady said, indicating his vote would be with Minor's motion to not accept the property at this time.

The vote was unanimous.