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Proposed stormwater fee creates controversy

camie.young@gwinnettdailypost.com

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County commissioners this week will consider charging property owners a fee that would be used to fix aging stormwater drains and polluted streams.

That doesn't sit well with Ed Kotkiewicz, a 62-year-old retiree who lives in the Barrington Place subdivision just east of the Lawrenceville city limits.

"I think it's ludicrous," Kotkiewicz said of the fee, which would be based on the amount of pavement and rooftop covering each

property.

Seniors and others living on fixed incomes are already being hammered by soaring energy prices, the former Lucent Technologies worker said, and the fee would just add another burden.

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.

Kotkiewicz also expressed discontent that residents in the unincorporated county would automatically pay the fee, while city residents would pay only if their municipality opts into the stormwater program.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is David Hintze, a retiree who lives in a condo community composed of 29 ranch-style homes in

the Peachtree Corners

community.

Each time it rains, aging drainage pipes and a detention pond at The Deerings are barraged by stormwater running off properties upstream. After the stormwater deposited several feet of silt in their detention pond in 1998, the condo residents had to shell out $35,775 to have the pond cleaned.

Paying to keep the drainage pipes and ponds at The Deerings maintained is a costly burden for the condo community, where most residents are around 70 years old, Hintze said, but that could change if the county creates a stormwater utility.

A policy that still must be ironed out would let the county take control of private detention ponds - but not drainage pipes - and pay for their upkeep.

"That would be a deal," said Hintze, who hopes the policy ultimately includes pipes. "We have at least 230 feet of huge pipe that's getting old and needs to be replaced and some of it would cost $100,000."

Commission debate

These examples echo the debate county commissioners will encounter Tuesday when they consider implementing the fee.

Commissioners agree something must be done to fund solutions, but the form could be debated.

District 3 Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said he wants developer impact fees to be part of the discussion.

"You could say we're robbing Peter to pay Paul," Beaudreau said of using taxpayer dollars to help with situations such as Hintze's. "I'm awfully concerned about the tax burden on our citizens."

District 4 Commissioner Kevin Kenerly said he didn't believe impact fees would work because the money generated would have to be used in the same area where development is occurring. That means the older neighborhoods where pipes are failing wouldn't receive the money.

The utility would use the revenue to address a large backlog of repairs that need to be made to drainage pipes, detention ponds and other county structures that handle stormwater on public property.

Officials say the fee would also help the county meet federal and state mandates calling for it to clean and repair streams ripped apart by poorly managed stormwater runoff - mostly in heavily developed parts of south Gwinnett.

Lastly, officials say the fee would let the county improve "customer service," or more quickly tackle stormwater problems damaging private property.

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

While the most urgent fixes are prioritized, other repair projects have languished on a waiting list - some up to four years.

Likewise, the list of needed maintenance projects is daunting, county officials say.

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

Further complicating things, the amount of stormwater infrastructure the county must maintain grows each year as more of the countryside is developed.

However, the amount of revenue the county has to fix the creaky infrastructure, let alone maintain what is being added, is not growing at the same rate, officials say.

"Right now we're behind the eight ball," said Bryan Lackey, acting director of stormwater management at the county Public Utilities Department.

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.

Fixing the fee

The fee would 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.

As for why city dwellers won't automatically have to pay the fee, Lackey said it's a jurisdictional issue.

"They are autonomous governments," Lackey said. "They can choose or not choose what policy they want to enact; we can't force anything on them."

The county has approached each city about joining the program, and elected officials at each one will choose whether their municipality should participate.

City choice

"I don't think we have enough information right now," said Suwanee Mayor Nick Masino.

He said Gwinnett's municipalities may work together to look at the information and hire consultants, but the decision will ultimately be an individual one.

"We have hundreds of thousands of dollars of stormwater projects in Suwanee. That's what we know about. The question is what we don't know about," he said. "At this point all the cities are determining what is in the best interests of their citizens."

The city of Loganville recently began its own stormwater utility, but the county is leading the rest of the cities in the issue.

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 Council for Quality Growth, a Duluth-based group that represents developers, engineers, real estate agents and others in the growth industry, supports the stormwater fee.

"It is necessary," said the council's president, Michael Paris. "We are going to see stormwater utilities throughout the region because handling stormwater is probably the No. 1 issue in handling growth outside of transportation.

"It is just like looking after water and sewer and road infrastructure; stormwater is equally important."