Environmentalists protest last-minute changes to stormwater rules

Some environmentalists are upset at last-minute changes to a city ordinance passed Monday that will allow developers to continue to pay a fee instead of storing and cleaning stormwater on-site.

The City Council approved a three-year extension for the waivers by a 7-4 vote Monday night.

The changes to the policy included reducing the length of the waiver from five years to three years. Also included was a provision that both sides in the issue convene in an attempt to forge a compromise.

Shannon Binns is executive director of the group Sustain Charlotte, which lobbied the City Council against making the waiver citywide.

If he had been allowed to speak Monday, Binns said he would have told council members the issue had already been studied in detail in 2008, when the policy was first enacted. He said he felt the prospect of additional meetings would put environmental groups at a disadvantage.

He said he felt as though the changes gave council members political cover for continuing the waivers.

“I would have liked to let the council know, ‘Hey, by doing this, you are asking the environmental community to work for six to nine months. The REBIC (the Real Estate and Building Coalition) exists solely to lobby on behalf of their industry.’ ”

Binns said he learned of the changes only minutes before the meeting began.

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins said he thought convening a stakeholder group is OK.

“However, I wish we’d had the opportunity to inform council why it really was not appropriate for it to occur with a third temporary fee extension, certainly not for three years,” he said. “The public needs an opportunity to give input on new proposals like this.”

City Attorney Bob Hagemann said the changes to the ordinance were small and didn’t require the city to hold a new public hearing, in which both sides could debate the issue again.

He compared the revisions in the policy to changes city staff often make during rezoning petitions after a public hearing.

The changes helped the waiver gain approval, council members said.

At-large member Vi Lyles, who voted for the waiver, said one reason is that creating a new stakeholder meeting would help developers and environmentalists come together.

Republicans Ed Driggs and Kenny Smith, and Democrats David Howard, Claire Fallon, Michael Barnes, Greg Phipps and Lyles voted for the waiver.

In 2008, the City Council created a new policy that required developers to handle and treat stormwater on-site when redeveloping projects. There was an exemption for developers who were building in economically distressed corridors.

In 2011, council members changed the policy and extended the waiver citywide. The development community said it was struggling because of the recession, and the temporary waiver was meant to aid developers.

The waiver was extended for six months in early 2014 and then again for three years last night.

Council member John Autry, who voted against the extension, said the economy is doing well now and that the changes are unnecessary.

The idea behind handling stormwater on-site is to keep large amounts of rainwater – and pollutants – from rushing into streams and creeks.