Years of research lead to successful N.C. stormwater utility

Years of research lead to successful N.C. stormwater utility
The Chapel Hill Stormwater Utility participates in the annual NC Big Sweep program, when throughout the month of October volunteers from all 100 counties in North Carolina clean up land and watershed areas. (Photos courtesy of Chapel Hill)

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As municipal footprints grow, the square mileage of concrete and blacktop surfaces increases. As a result, outlets for stormwater runoff decrease­ – a cause for concern for municipalities across the country.  

Stormwater is being filtered to fewer areas, which means sewers and water bodies are often overloaded with runoff during heavy downpours. This leads to dangerous flooding problems and potential water pollution issues, damage that costs municipalities thousands of budget dollars to correct. That’s why many municipalities have decided to prioritize the issue.  

Stormwater orders change
The Town of Chapel Hill, N.C., has long dealt with its share of stormwater issues. According to a report presented in 1994 to the Town Council by its stormwater management committee, negative stormwater issues in Chapel Hill were predicted to increase as the town grew. The report recommended actions for the town to manage stormwater and mitigate potential impacts on water quality and citizen safety. In 2004, the town’s research, discussions and recommendations led to the creation of a Stormwater Management Utility, funded by property owner fees based on the amount of impervious surface on the property.

The utility was necessary based on requirements under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) – Phase II regulations. According to Sue Burke, Chapel Hill head stormwater engineer, it was the proper time to institute the new utility anyway.

“This community spent a great deal of time studying the idea of a stormwater utility, and over the years kept coming back with the recommendation to do it,” says Burke. “It was written into statute in 2004, and has been in place and used for the community ever since.”

Defining surface restrictions
According to the U.S. Geological Survey Department, an “impervious” surface is defined as roads, buildings, housing developments and parking lots that natural precipitation cannot naturally soak into. To combat the issue, municipalities create stormwater utilities to implement plans and infrastructure to deal with runoff in a safe and environmentally friendly manner.

Along with the Stormwater Management Utility in 2004, Chapel Hill also established an ordinance that set an equivalent rate unit fee of $39 per 2,000 square feet of impervious surface area, and provided for the appointment of a Stormwater Management Utility Advisory Board. However, the town was already facing an increase in its property tax levy, and many residents viewed the new utility as an additional burdensome tax.

“Some pushback from the community was inevitable,” says Burke. “Whenever you talk about making a change, there will be objections. However, I believe the town did more than its share of homework on this issue, and ultimately it made a good decision.”

Because the program is funded as a utility and not a tax, tax-exempt properties, such as churches, schools, hospitals and municipality-owned impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, garages and park pavilions, are charged. No property tax dollars are utilized for self-funded stormwater management.

“We actually bill ourselves for the impervious property the city owns,” says Burke. “This utility is implemented as fairly as possible. People grumble, but everyone in the town is billed on an equal footing, and many appreciate that.”

Stormwater utility fees are included on tax bills for Chapel Hill properties in Orange County. The town’s Geographic Information System (GIS) uses aerial photography to calculate individual bills (photos of the entire town were taken in winter 2003 and again in 2007). All impervious surfaces are identified, and the amount of impervious surface in each parcel is calculated.

The annual $39 fee implemented in 2004 is still charged for every 2,000 square feet of impervious surface for single-family and commercial properties. In most cases, according to Burke, adding all impervious surfaces in the development and dividing by the number of residential units determines the fee for each multi-family unit, such as a condominium or townhouse. “It’s a pretty simple system we use compared to what other municipalities have done,” she says.

Sweeping plan of action
In Spring 2006, JEWELL Engineering Consultants was selected to work with the town in developing a long-term stormwater master plan. In addition, the utility has commissioned several studies on individual watersheds, water quality and ecological conditions in the Chapel Hill area.

According to Burke, the goal of this research is to:

  • Identify stream segments that may benefit from stream stabilization/restoration.
  • Identify and prioritize potential sites for Best Management Practices (BMP) and retrofit opportunities.
  • Perform hydrologic, hydraulic, and water quality/pollutant modeling.
  • Evaluate the performance of major public drainage structures and develop recommendations for potential flood hazard reduction and drainage capital improvement projects.
  • Identify potential nonstructural BMP opportunities.
  • Develop an outline of recommendations for the scope and estimated costs of townwide subwatershed modeling and master planning to be performed in later phases.

The Chapel Hill Stormwater Utility is also an active participant in the annual NC Big Sweep program, when throughout the month of October volunteers from all 100 counties in North Carolina clean up land and watershed areas. In 2011, more than 370 volunteers in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange Counties collected 8,000 pounds of trash from parks, waterways and roadsides during the event.

“There is a strong connection between stormwater management and stream health,” says Burke. “Being involved in the Big Sweep gives us the opportunity to spread the idea that stormwater management is important to the overall health of the community. We work with a lot of youth groups, which is a great way to connect with both them and their parents to get our message out.”

While other municipalities have and continue to struggle with how best to handle stormwater, Chapel Hill chose to address it head-on by creating a stormwater utility.

“We’re working hard, and folks are starting to see that,” says Burke. “As they understand the need, we are finding they are communicating with us more effectively. That’s the key.”


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