County property owners would fund proposed stormwater authority

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

The York County Planning Commission is exploring what a countywide stormwater authority would look like, and property owners are giving their 2 cents about the idea.

More than 300 people attended public meetings about the proposed authority in the last week of September.

At each meeting, Felicia Dell, director of the planning commission, explained that  although municipalities, farmers, businesses and homeowners all address stormwater issues individually, the county is not meeting the overall stormwater requirements imposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"When we try to push back and show that we're doing better than what they’re giving us credit for, we’re coming up short with some of the information, some of the data," she said.

York County Planning Commission Director Felicia Dell presents information during a public meeting at the York Learning Center regarding the proposed York County Stormwater Authority on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. The purpose of the meeting was to allow the general public to discuss the implementation plan for the authority. Bill Kalina photo

Dell said the goal of a countywide authority would be twofold: to improve water quality monitoring and data collection that shows where the county is having success, and to provide the monetary and human resources necessary to remedy the areas that need improvement.

"We don’t have that network completely in place in York County," Dell said. "If we did, we might not be feeling some of this heat from DEP and EPA."

On Monday, Sept. 24, the York County Farm Bureau hosted a meeting in Winterstown for farmers to hear about the proposal from the planning commission.

About 220 people were there.

Near the beginning of the presentation, Dell asked if any farmers would be interested in a program that could provide assistance for farmers to plant cover crops. (These are crops that are planted primarily to help prevent soil erosion, protect soil quality and promote biodiversity.)

One man said he already uses his own money to plant cover crops on his farm, and he took issue with the idea of subsidizing that cost for someone else.

"What you just told me is you want to take from the guys who are doing a good job — you want to take their money and give it to the people who are doing a piss-poor job, and that just ain’t right," he said. "If we want a cover crop, we put our own in."

Some farmers also said they didn't understand why it was necessary to form an authority and collect fees when most of the farmers are already implementing stormwater solutions, and when municipalities are fulfilling municipal separate storm sewer system, or MS4, requirements.

Dell said the purpose of the authority would not be to enforce requirements.

Instead, the authority would exist to gather enough resources to prove to the DEP and EPA that York County is meeting more of the stormwater requirements than it's getting credit for and to offer help to property owners and municipalities in their efforts to meet the requirements.

Those resources would be supported by a countywide fee charged to all property owners.

Others at the farm meeting encouraged their peers to listen to what the planning commission had to say.

Ed Livingston, 46, of Dover Township, said it was important to remember that it's the EPA that's imposing the stormwater requirements, not the planning commission.

Another man said the proposal for a countywide stormwater authority is the first idea he's heard that offers a plan to collectively achieve what county residents haven't been able to do individually.

What everyone would pay: In the working model of proposed fee structures, one fee would be charged for each tax parcel in the county, and every parcel would require a base fee of at least $48.90 per year. Parcels are categorized based on the property's tax assessment classification.

For residential land, property owners would be charged $48.90 for each of their parcels, regardless of the size of the property. The total fee would be $97.80 for someone who owns two residential parcels, $146.70 for three residential parcels, etc. 

For commercial land, which includes commercial, apartment, industrial and utility parcels, property owners would be charged either the base annual fee of $48.90 or a total annual fee of $0.01205 per square foot of impervious area within each parcel, whichever is more. 

Impervious areas include roofs, driveways, parking lots and other surfaces that don't absorb or filter rainwater.

For agricultural land, property owners would be charged the base fee of $48.90 per parcel, plus $9 per tillable acre. There would be no fee for woodland or pasture acres.

At face value, farmers and commercial property owners would individually pay the most, but Dell said the additional fees can be reduced by up to 50 percent for commercial land and up to 100 percent for agricultural land if the property owners meet certain requirements.

For farmers, the requirement to receive the credit is to have either an existing erosion and sedimentation plan or a conservation plan. If they don't already have one of these, farmers may also receive the credit by joining the waiting list for the York County Conservation District to help them develop a plan.

Farmers would be able to receive credit even if their plans are not currently implemented, Dell said.

For commercial land owners, the requirement to receive the credit is to have either a Post-Construction Stormwater Management plan or to have on-site stormwater treatment, such as retention facilities, rain gardens and other infrastructure.

Dell said this is an incentive to encourage best practices from the beginning.

Avoiding higher costs: John Seitz, a long-range planner with the planning commission, said at the farm bureau meeting that if the county doesn't satisfy the EPA and DEP requirements, the agencies could make the stormwater requirements even stricter as a penalty.

"More regulations are going to cost a lot more," Seitz said. "This effort is trying to be a little proactive to stay ahead of that."

More:Costs expected to spike for York County's Chesapeake Bay cleanup coalition

More:EPA: Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort is mostly on track

The stormwater requirements are part of Pennsylvania's participation in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, a cooperative plan signed by six states and the District of Columbia in 2014 with the stated goal of restoring the health of the bay.

Participating entities established individualized goals to reduce their phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment deposits in the Chesapeake Bay by 2025, and in Pennsylvania those goals were broken down by county.

Deborah Klenotic, spokeswoman for the DEP, said York County has made great progress reducing its phosphorous levels, which are currently at 447,000 pounds per year. This is 5,000 pounds below the county's 2025 phosphorous goal.

York County's current annual nitrogen level is 11.9 million pounds, which needs to decrease to 7.9 million pounds in 2025 in order to meet the goal.

Klenotic said the EPA has not established a sediment level goal.

After an hourlong presentation at the Sept. 25 meeting, which had about 115 attendees, the audience split into three breakout groups in order to ask more detailed questions about how the authority would impact agricultural, commercial and residential property owners.

A crowd gathers during a public meeting at the York Learning Center regarding the proposed York County Stormwater Authority on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. The purpose of the meeting was to allow the general public to discuss the implementation plan for the authority. Bill Kalina photo

In the residential group, a few particularly vocal residents said they felt the authority was unnecessary and an expansion of government being forced on the county's residents.

Dennis Doerfler, 69, of Hopewell Township, was at the Sept. 25 meeting with his wife, Jean Doerfler, 67. 

Dennis Doerfler said it wouldn't be a problem for them to pay the $48.90 annual fee as long as it didn't keep increasing, but he said he's not counting on the fee remaining that low.

Jean agreed.

"You say this is all it is, but you’re just going to keep upping it," Jean said, referring to the proposed authority fee, "especially when you see the major projects you’re going to be tackling."

JMT Senior Associate Andrew Birmingham presents information during a public meeting at the York Learning Center regarding the proposed York County Stormwater Authority on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. The purpose of the meeting was to allow the general public to discuss the implementation plan for the authority. Bill Kalina photo

Taxes and Fees: One of the most common questions at both meetings had to do with the difference between a tax and a fee.

A tax is levied by a governing body of elected officials, Dell said, and by nature, tax-exempt entities aren't required to pay. This includes churches, schools, nonprofit organizations and others. 

Dell also pointed out that once a tax is collected, the money will go into the general fund of the governing body that levied it, and there's no legal restriction on how that money can be spent.

"If the priorities shift, the money shifts," Dell said.

In contrast, a fee would be applied to every tax parcel in the county, even those that are tax-exempt. If one property owner has several parcels, the owner would be charged a separate fee for each parcel.

A fee also has built-in protections that can be outlined in the authority's articles of incorporation, Dell said. This means it would be illegal to use the fees for anything other than stormwater projects.

Dell said she expects the planning commission's work group to have a completed stormwater authority proposal ready by the end of the year, and to present the proposal to the county commissioners for a vote in early 2019.

The planning commission will hold another public meeting Thursday, Nov. 8, at the York Learning Center in North York. The time has not yet been announced.