Charlotte developers, environmentalists differ on stormwater proposal

The Charlotte City Council will consider next month extending a policy that allows developers to pay a fee instead of controlling stormwater when redeveloping land – a decision environmentalists say could allow more pollutants to flow into the city’s streams.

In 2008, the city enacted an ordinance that required developers to store and filter stormwater on their property, unless they were building in one of several economically distressed corridors. If someone was building in one of those areas, they could pay a fee to the city instead of handling stormwater on-site.

Three years later, in the aftermath of the recession, the development community lobbied to allow for the waivers to be used citywide, saying the requirements were too cumbersome. The council approved that exemption, which is now up for another vote.

City staff have recommended it be extended an additional five years.

During a public hearing Monday night, some spoke against the citywide waiver, saying the best way to handle stormwater problems is on-site.

They argued that the best way to stop pollution is at its source, and compared it to the city’s prohibition against food and drinks in the council chambers. Rather than clean up trash and mess from people who have left, the speakers noted that the city decided it’s most effective to ban the problem all together.

They said the city should require developers to control pollution at the source, rather than allowing it to flow into streams and creeks.

Others, including those in the development community, noted that on-site mitigation is still required for new development and that a fee gives builders predictability.

The idea behind handling stormwater on-site is to prevent massive amounts of rainwater from flowing off a building or concrete parking lot and into a stream or creek, where it could erode the dirt sides. Large amounts of runoff can also cause flash flooding. Another concern is that runoff can carry pollutants into streams.

Daryl Hammock, an assistant division manager for the city’s storm water services department, said developers could install green roofs, retention ponds and underground sand filters.

The city has recommended that council members extend the citywide waiver. Hammock said the city can use the fees to build pollution controls nearby, serving a larger area.

“We build the filter somewhere else, nearby,” Hammock said. “We can do it for a much bigger benefit. Environmentally this is an outstanding approach to mitigate off-site.”

The council’s environment committee voted 3-1 in favor of extending the waiver. Republicans Ed Driggs and Kenny Smith, along with Democrat David Howard, voted in favor of the extension.

Democrat John Autry, the chairman, voted no. He is lobbying for the full council to reject the extension next month.

“This is a deciding moment for this council,” Autry said Tuesday. “Are we serious about the environment?”

Autry said he doesn’t understand why the development industry needs special consideration in 2014, when there are a number of construction projects throughout the city, especially in urban areas near uptown.

Hammock said there have been 105 redevelopment projects in the city in which the developer has had the option of paying the fee or handling stormwater on-site.

He said 59 chose to handle stormwater on-site, while the developers of 46 projects chose to pay a fee.

The mitigation fee is $30,000 per acre of redeveloped land.

Joe Padilla, executive director of REBIC, the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, said his group supports extending the waiver.

He said the city should encourage redevelopment, which has less of an environmental impact than new construction in the suburbs.

He said paying a fee for an in-fill project is “better than having a parking lot that’s 100 percent impervious.”

The development industry is a major player in local political campaigns, and is usually the largest special interest in terms of donations to council campaigns.

Shannon Binns is the executive director of Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit that lobbies local governments to make what it says are environmentally correct decisions.

“We urge you to vote against allowing (developers) to pay a fee,” Bins said. “Doing business comes with responsibility.”