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Commissioners considering stormwater fee

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County could charge property owners a fee so it can fix drainage pipes across the county and repair streams damaged by development.

The stormwater utility fee, which county commissioners will vote on in November, would be based on the amount of pavement and rooftop that covers a property.

The bill for an average residence would start out at $27.08 in 2006 and plateau three years later at $86.52, according to county information.

Only property owners in the unincorporated county would pay the fee, unless individual cities decide to join the program. In that case, residents of that municipality would also be assessed the fee.

The revenue would help the county tackle a daunting backlog of repairs that need to be made to pipes, drains and detention ponds that handle stormwater, said county Public Utilities Director Frank Stephens.

"We've got to get out from behind the eight ball on our drainage structures," Stephens said.

The fee would also help the county meet state and federal mandates that require it clean up streams that have been polluted by poorly controlled stormwater, Stephens said.

The fee will be based on the amount of impervious surface on a property because the more asphalt and rooftops, the greater impact it has on stormwater runoff, Stephens said.

That's because rainwater flows off hard surfaces faster than it does yards, pastures and even gravel drives, and that increased runoff puts more pressure on detention ponds and other facilities designed to slow it down and convey it.

If the stormwater is left unchecked, it will rip apart streams and deposit pollutants in waterways, which is what has happened because of the county's aging stormwater infrastructure.

For instance, the county has more than 750 miles of drainage pipes that have exceeded their 20-year life span and need to be replaced. The estimated cost: $117 million.

In addition, the county gets about 300 calls a month from residents whose property has been threatened or even damaged by stormwater during heavy rains. In some catastrophic cases, backyards and roads have been washed away when drainage pipes caved in.

While those fixes are prioritized, other repair projects have languished on a waiting list - most for more than two years and some up to four years.

Stephens said the backlog continues to grow as more of the county's stormwater infrastructure reaches old age, and as more homes are built and more roads added, it puts more of a burden on the creaky system.

"We have to do something," Stephens said. "We have this growing backlog, and we have this pipe that is aging.

"If we don't get on top of that, all we'll be able to do is respond to roads caving in."

The problem has contributed to the county having 143 miles of streams that violate state water quality standards because of pollutants washed into the waterways by stormwater, according to county information.

Most of the damaged streams are in the southern, more heavily developed part of the county, including areas in and around Norcross, Lilburn, Snellville and Grayson.

Some of the problem, however, has been caused by detention ponds that were installed by developers before the county tightened its development regulations.

The county is considering a policy that would let it assume responsibility for the repair and maintenance of the numerous structures, Stephens said.

If approved by commissioners, the stormwater fee would be phased in starting in 2006, when it would be based on a rate of 77 cents per 100 square feet of impervious surface.

The rate would climb to $1.41 in 2007; $2.01 in 2008; and finally $2.46 in 2009.

The average amount of solid surface at county residences is 3,157 square feet, which translates into a $27.08 stormwater tab in 2006. That charge would grow to $86.52 in 2009.

However, 60 percent of the homes in Gwinnett would pay less than that because their amount of hard top is below the county average.

One home in Liberty Heights, a subdivision built in the Norcross area shortly after World War II, would pay $39 in 2009, while another home in the Sugarloaf Country Club in Duluth would pay $449 that year, according to the county.

One home in the Hamilton Mill subdivision would dole out $107 in 2009, while a church on Beaver Ruin Road would pay $1,472. An office complex on Technology Parkway would be billed $5,081, and shopping center on Riverside Parkway would be assessed $20,370, according to the county.

The charge would appear as a line item on annual property tax bills. Churches and other tax-exempt properties would get a separate stormwater bill.

Aerial photos of the county taken in February would be used to determine how much of a property is covered by roofs, parking lots and decks. New photos would be taken each year.

The county now spends $15 million annually on maintaining and repairing stormwater facilities. The utility fee could raise that amount to $34 million a year, according to the county.

Several Georgia counties and cities have already created stormwater utilities and implemented fees to pay for them, including DeKalb County, Rockdale County, Douglas County, Loganville, Decatur and Conyers.

An official with a metro Atlanta water planning district said several decades ago counties and cities were not required by state and federal laws to manage their stormwater.

That has changed, and jurisdictions have turned to stormwater utility fees to pay for the required improvements, which includes repairing damaged streams and installing detention ponds, said Pat Stevens, chief of environmental planning at the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District.

"There are new services and requirements and local governments are looking for ways to pay for them, and traditional funding sources like taxes can't keep up with these needs," Stevens said.

"That is why a number of communities in our area are looking at stormwater utilities to deal with these problems."