County engineers may soon set standards for drainage pipes

LAWRENCEVILLE - Over the years, Gwinnett County commissioners have determined what type of stormwater drainage pipes can go in new subdivisions and shopping centers.

That could change in coming weeks, with county engineers instead of elected officials setting quality standards for the miles of pipe that are installed by developers each year.

Doing so will take the technical issue out of the political arena, said County Commissioner Lorraine Green, who herself is an environmental engineer.

Green said county engineers already set standards for water and sewer pipes, so it makes sense that county experts also determine what kind of stormwater pipes are best for Gwinnett County.

"The policy that is in place now is insufficient," said Green, whose district includes Duluth and parts of Lawrenceville and Suwanee. "It is based on the political whims of the Board of Commissioners, quite frankly.

"I'm an engineer and I understand this is a technical issue. Material selection is highly specialized, and to have untrained people making this decision is not in the best interest of the citizens."

Some have claimed in the past that politics play too great a role in setting standards for the pipes that developers install to help channel rain water into nearby rivers and streams.

That's significant, they say, because after stormwater pipes located in public rights of way fail or exceed their life expectancy, the county has to pay to fix or replace them.

A daunting backlog of repair projects is one reason the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners last year added a stormwater fee to water and sewer bills, with the revenue going toward mending old pipes that were installed when the county had lower standards.

The stormwater pipe standards were tightened significantly in 2001 when the county commission ruled developers could no longer use galvanized metal pipes, which last 30 to 50 years, said county Public Utilities Director Frank Stephens.

At the time, some questioned whether aluminum-coated corrugated metal pipes should also be banned. They were ultimately left on the list of permissible pipes.

Recently that discussion resurfaced, with some wanting to nix the use of corrugated metal pipes in favor of reinforced concrete pipes that last longer.

The county Development Advisory Committee, composed of developers, builders, engineers and citizens, opted to continue allowing corrugated pipe, but only if it is thicker and has a life expectancy similar to concrete pipes.

Concrete pipes are allowed under county regulations, but developers favor metal pipes because they are cheaper to install.

The thicker corrugated steel pipe discussed by the DAC will add more cost to development projects, "but it will certainly be much more minimal than the cost of concrete," said Mark Richardson, of Lawrenceville-based Richardson Housing Group.

Traditionally DAC has forwarded a recommendation to county commissioners, who have the final say on stormwater pipe quality standards. That might not happen this time, though.

The county commission on Tuesday will vote on making county Public Utilities responsible for setting performance standards just as they already do for sewer and water pipes.

If they approve the change, Stephens said Public Utilities will go with the standards already discussed by DAC.

Only corrugated metal pipes that last about 100 years will be allowed under the standards that Public Utilities will publish.

"We are improving our design standards so at this point forward, we will only allow materials that are have more than a 75-year life," Stephens said.

Richardson said the tougher corrugated pipe would strike a balance.

"I think it's more in line with what Cobb County requires," Richardson said. "We need to be conscious of what we're leaving behind us, but we also need to be conscious of what it costs."

Gwinnett County has 750 miles of drainage pipes that have exceeded their life spans and must be replaced at an estimated cost of $117 million. Much of the pipe is galvanized steel that was allowed before 2001, according to county officials.