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Tougher pipe standards follow stormwater fee

LAWRENCEVILLE - Months after Gwinnett County commissioners adopted a stormwater fee so they can fix crumbling drainage pipes, developers will have to start installing longer-lasting ones.

The county Public Utilities Department is proposing that developers only use stormwater pipes that last 100 years, compared to the current minimum standard of 75 years.

That's significant because the county is ultimately responsible for maintaining many of the pipes developers use in subdivisions, office parks and shopping centers, said County Commissioner Mike Beaudreau.

"This is finally setting the bar higher for the types of construction materials we are asking folks to put in the ground," said Beaudreau, whose district includes Grayson and Dacula.

"Taxpayers will normally have to take over the upkeep of these materials years down the road, so this is trying to minimize the future expense of taxpayers."

The new standards will not go into effect until they are published later this summer by Public Utilities, whose engineers were recently given authority to set quality standards for storm pipes.

Before Gwinnett County commissioners gave the responsibility to Public Utilities last week, commissioners themselves had the final say over what type of pipes developers could use to funnel rain water off parking lots and structures and into nearby streams.

Giving the responsibility to county engineers "takes the politics" out of determining what kinds of stormwater pipes are OK and bases it on sound engineering and what's best for citizens, one commissioner said.

Any pipes placed beside roads or in other public rights-of-way become the county's responsibility, which means the county must pay to fix or replace them when they fail.

A daunting backlog of such projects is one reason county 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 steel pipes because they last only 30 to 50 years.

But enough galvanized pipe had already been installed to create a problem.

Most of the 750 miles of drain pipes that have exceeded their life spans and must be replaced at an estimated cost of $120 million is galvanized steel that was allowed before 2001, said Public Utilities Director Frank Stephens.

In 2001 some also questioned whether aluminum-coated corrugated steel pipes should be banned. They were ultimately left on the list of permissible pipes.

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

A panel of developers and citizens that advises county commissioners balked at the proposal because concrete pipes cost more and would make development projects more expensive.

The Development Advisory Committee opted instead to raise the standards for corrugated pipes so only thicker ones that last nearly 100 years, or as long as concrete pipes, can be used.

Before the recommendation reached county commissioners, the commissioners voted to take themselves out of the equation and instead give county engineers, who already set standards for water and sewer pipes, the final say.

The new stormwater pipe rules also prohibit the use of corrugated pipe in locations where it will be scoured by rocks and gravel, which can shorten its lifespan. In those cases, concrete pipes will have to be used, Stephens said.

County Chairman Charles Bannister said the new standards will strike a balance while still giving the county longer-lasting pipes.

"We needed something that lasts as long as possible with the best pricing over the long haul," Bannister said. "We checked it out pretty thoroughly I think."

Beaudreau said he expected the DAC to frown on the proposal because many of its members work in the development industry, which is akin to the "fox watching the hen house."

He said the DAC's discussion about stormwater pipes did not spur the decision to give Public Utilities control over them.