Stormwater rules

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(Host) Commentator Tim McQuiston reflects on the new stormwater runoff law.

(McQuiston) When sides that have been in bitter opposition on an issue unexpectedly reach agreement, it makes you wonder what’s going on. Such is the case with the new and profoundly complicated stormwater law.

The reason there is a new stormwater law is because the old one essentially stopped all new commercial development in Chittenden County. The previous rules stated that stormwater runoff from a new development could not add any level of pollution to a watershed that was already deemed polluted, or what they call impaired. Of the 17 watersheds deemed polluted, nine are in Chittenden County. Looking at the list, there’s really no watershed left in Chittenden that would be considered not impaired.

The Water Resources Board took that law at face value. The most famous case is that of the proposed Lowe’s home center in South Burlington. Construction of the project was halted because of just such a Water Resources Board ruling.

From the business point of view, this was crazy. There couldn’t be any new development in Vermont’s largest county that produced any stormwater runoff, even if, and this is where the developers and others really started pulling out their hair, even if the treated stormwater was so clean that it actually reduced pollution levels in the receiving waters. In the case of Lowe’s, the receiving water is Potash Brook.

Stormwaters typically wash motor oil, sediments and other pollutants off parking lots and into nearby streams. The new law states that for the next three years there must be a “net-zero” increase in pollutants finding their way to impaired watersheds.

To achieve this and allow for development, the developer must find an approved offset at another location. It would work something like this. A developer would build a state of the art stormwater treatment facility at his own site. If he’s only able to capture, say, 80 percent of the pollutants, he must find someone else whose development could be upgraded by at least 20 percent to reach the net-zero standard. If that doesn’t work, the developer could pay what amounts to a fine of up to $30,000 per acre of impervious surface. That money would help fund other offsets to, again, achieve the net-zero result.

But in any case, the developer must try as hard as he can to reduce stormwater pollution as much as possible. The law sets aside $700,000 for the Agency of Natural Resources to monitor the situation.

The business side isn’t thrilled with such strict requirements, which environmentalists wanted, but the law gets business moving again. The politicians on both sides like the new law because they’ve accomplished, at least, something.

But this is only an interim plan. In three years a comprehensive stormwater plan is supposed to be put in place. It is then that we’ll really find out who feels like they’ve won or lost on this stormwater issue.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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