Politics & Government

Council approves stormwater cleanup fee waiver

The Charlotte City Council approved an extension to a citywide waiver Monday that will allow developers to pay a fee instead of handling and cleaning stormwater on-site, a change that has been criticized by environmentalists as allowing pollutants to flow into streams and creeks.

City staff said the change won’t negatively affect the environment, and it will provide developers with more certainty when planning. The change only applies to redevelopment projects, and developers building on greenfield sites must still handle and clean runoff on site.

After council members held a public hearing on the issue in September, city staff made changes to the proposal in an effort to get council support. The city reduced the length of the waiver from five years to three years and directed developers and environmentalists to work together to find a compromise.

Democrat Greg Phipps, who voted for the waiver, was skeptical more meetings would improve the policy.

“What difference would there be with this stakeholder group?” he asked.

The debate pitted environmentalists against developers, who are some of the largest financial contributors to council campaigns.

The change was approved in a 7-4 vote.

Republicans Kenny Smith and Ed Driggs, and Democrats Phipps, David Howard, Vi Lyles, Claire Fallon and Michael Barnes voted yes.

Democrats LaWana Mayfield, Patsy Kinsey, John Autry and Al Austin voted no.

Mayor Dan Clodfelter didn’t attend the meeting.

Autry, who chairs the environment committee, urged his colleagues to vote no.

“I would put forward to you that distressed streams have an impact on the quality of life,” he said.

In 2008, the city said all redevelopment projects must treat stormwater on site, to reduce the amount of pollutants that might flow into streams and creeks. If a developer was building in an economically distressed corridor, they could pay a fee instead of handling the water on site.

In 2011, council members changed the policy. They allowed developers to pay the fee citywide, citing the poor economy. But the new three-year extension comes as the economy has improved and construction projects are underway throughout the city.

About a dozen people in the council chambers held signs that said “Vote No on Weakening PCCO (post-construction control ordinance).”

Shannon Binns, executive director of the nonprofit group Sustain Charlotte, criticized Monday’s vote.

“We are extremely disappointed that the majority of council has put the interests of the development industry before the public interest – again,” he said.

Lyles, an at-large council member, said the waiver will “encourage stakeholders to sit down and talk about this.”

“The two sides weren’t talking to each other,” she said.

Driggs said the citywide waiver will clear the way for some redevelopment projects.

“It allows for some development that might not have occurred,” he said.

The idea behind on-site handling of stormwater 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 cause flash flooding. Another concern is that runoff can carry pollutants into streams.

The city has said developers could install green roofs, retention ponds and underground sand filters.

The city has said it can pool the money collected from the fees and build larger stormwater filters that serve a broader area.

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

Of those projects, 59 chose to handle stormwater on site, while the developers of 46 projects chose to pay a fee.

“I supported the (2011) extension with the understanding there would be a sunset,” Kinsey said. “I can’t support an additional time period. We have to have political will to stick to our guns.”