The ‘rain tax’ cometh?

Be prepared to pay the government for the rain on your roof

By Clint Parker and Matt Mittan
The Asheville Tribune

Aug 15, 2002
Part 1

North Carolina - It's been a long time since we've seen any real rain in Western North Carolina. However, the next time it does rain you might want to think about the storm water that the rain produces.

Why? Because according to the Federal government storm water runoff is a problem, and it needs to be addressed.

Storm water runoff is the water that flows off impervious surface areas such as roofs, driveways, parking lots, streets, and other hard surfaces during rainstorms. Rather than being absorbed into the ground, it pours into ditches, culverts, catch basins, and storm sewers. 

According to the government, storm water can carry harmful pollutants, cause flooding, erode topsoil and stream banks, and destroys marine life habitat.

So, in the near future, the rain you hear falling on your roof might be costing you money - tax money that is.

The history behind the coming “rain tax”

It all started with the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) which prohibited the discharge of any pollutant to waters of the United States form a "point source" unless the discharge is authorized by a National Permit Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

A "point source" is any place that you can say for sure is polluting streams and water supplies such as an industry, business or a sewer system.

In 1987, the CWA was amended to require implementation of a national program for non-agricultural sources of storm water runoff, because the government said that water quality studies showed that sparse sources of water pollution were also significant causes of pollution. They called these sparse sources of pollutants, "nonpoint source."

A "nonpoint source" pollution is water pollution that is difficult to trace to a specific discharge point because it comes from many diverse sources. Examples of common nonpoint source pollutants include fertilizers, pesticides, sediments, oils, salts, trace metals, and litter. They come from farms, yards, roofs, construction sites, automobiles, and streets.

The national program to control these "nonpoint source" pollutants is being implemented in two phases. Phase I, implemented in 1990, covered medium and large municipal separate storm sewer systems greater than 100,000 persons and 11 categories of industrial activity. Six municipal areas in North Carolina were permitted under Phase I (Raleigh, Durham, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Charlotte).

Phase II rules for small municipalities and construction activity was finalized in December 1999. These Phase II rule are set to be implemented in March 2003. That is when cities and municipalities are supposed to have in place a plan to handle the "nonpoint source" problem.

What is the program for handling these problems? It has been determined that each individual city and municipality is supposed to set up their own program.

How are these projects being funded? This is the critical factor and is where the "rain tax" may come in, because the federal government is not sending any money with this mandate.

Examples of what some cities are doing

Some communities across the state have already implemented the "rain tax" and other strict "environmental-friendly" programs.

The storm water program in Greensboro, North Carolina got underway in 1994 during Phase 1 of the amended CWA.

The City of Greensboro has dedicated part of its website to explaining the need for the program, how it will be implemented, paid for, how one can be exempted from the program and what the consequences are for noncompliance.

"As Greensboro continues to experience growth, the level of effort and potential difficulties associated with managing the existing and developing storm drainage systems will increase," explained the city. Since "...the City does not have a complete inventory of the storm drainage features...the Storm water Management Division is conducting an extensive city-wide project to inventory storm drainage features."

According to the website the "Storm Water Infrastructure Inventory project includes three primary components: (1) determination of the location of each structure; (2) collection of structure attributes; and (3) development of a Geographical Information System (GIS) database that includes all of the information on the storm water conveyance system."

The city used two consulting firms to inventory the city's storm drainage systems, both public and private. "Therefore, temporary access to these properties will be needed," said the city so as to prepare property owners.

Asked if any homeowners had refused to allow these crews access to their property, Senior Consultant Shastri Annambhotla of the Greensboro Storm water Management Department said a couple had until "...people were informed about program. He said that the crews were also given "...authorization letters..." from the city to show to homeowners.

Under this new Storm water utility all residential customers are charged for an average of 2,543 square feet of impervious surfaces. The residential charge is $2.44 per month. Why are all houses charged the same, regardless of size? According to officials, "The city does not have the data that would allow it to charge each of the 55,000 single family homes on the basis of its impervious surface area measurement. In addition, the majority of services benefit citizens equally, regardless of how large their lot or built area is."

Commercial customers get a different set of standards to calculate that tax rate. "The impervious surfaces for each property in the city are measured using aerial photography and geographical information systems technology. The amount of impervious surfaces is divided by the equivalent residential unit (ERU) of 2,543 square feet and multiplied by $2.44 per month." The example given is a business with 100,000 square foot of impervious surfaces. That would equal 39.42 ERU that is then rounded up to 40 ERU. Multiply 40 ERU by the $2.44 per month and you get a tax of $97.60 per month.

What happens if I don't pay my bill? The city is clear about that saying, "You risk having all of your city services stopped, including water if you are a water customer. In addition, the city could place a lien against your property or file civil charges to collect."

The rain tax in Greensboro has even gone as far as to tax churches along with other tax-exempt groups. The city defends its action in taxing the churches saying, "All properties within the city that have impervious surface must pay regardless of ownership or tax status. All impervious surface contributes to the pollution problem and, therefore, all property owners should pay their share of the costs."

Asked if there were any complains from churches about the tax, Annambhotla said, "Yes, there were lawsuits." He went on to say he believed the lawsuits had been resolved and that the churches do have to pay the tax.

How does one become exempt from the Greensboro rain tax? According to the city if you have a properties that has "no disturbed area or less than 600 square feet of total impervious surface" you can get an exemption. Otherwise, "All other property owners cannot be exempted unless they remove all structures and other impervious materials from the property, and re-seed and re-plant it, returning a parcel to its natural state. The city further states, "All property owners can return property to its natural state" in order to get an exemption.

According to Annambhotla, the rain tax produces between $6 and $7 million in revenue, which is controlled by the Storm water Management Department and used for managing storm water, capital improvements and water quality monitoring. He said all funds stay with in the city and that the funds are not used for anything else.

Another city in the state is going beyond what is called for in state regulations to control the problem.

The Town of Cary, North Carolina lists as part of their storm water management program: Watershed Protection Rules, Neuse River Buffer Rules, Sediment and Erosion Control Program and Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance.

While the Neuse River Buffer Rules, which requires 50-foot buffer on streams flowing into the Neuse River, is unique to that part of the state, the town of Cary, as part of their Storm water management plan, has doubled the state's requirement on buffering to 100-feet in the city limits and the extra territorial jurisdiction. In addition, the city extended the buffers to all streams, whether they flow into the Neuse River or not. The buffers require landowners not to disturb the land inside the buffer area, which is effectively taking the land from property owners.

"Leading the state in adopting these strict environmental rules is another in a long list of initiatives we have in place that put our natural resources first," said Town Manager Bill Coleman.

How this law will affect Asheville and Buncombe County will be coming in next week's article.


More questions and answers about Greensboro's rain tax from the city's website:

Q: Why is the city charging me for rain?

A: You are not being charged for rain. The service charge is to manage programs to reduce or eliminate the pollution of storm water. It has been demonstrated scientifically that runoff and pollution from a property increases as the amount of impervious surface area on that property increases.

Q: Hasn't the city always had storm drains? Nothing has changed at my home/business. Why am I being charged now when I wasn't several years ago?

A: Yes. The city has had storm drains for a long time. However, the federal regulations that require a comprehensive storm water quality management program are relatively new and have only been effective since 1994. The utility fee enables the city to meet its responsibilities to manage the storm drain system more closely, study the contents of storm water, seek out and eliminate illicit connections and illegal dumping, enforce codes more strictly, and educate citizens.

Q: Am I still charged even if it does not rain for a long time?

A: Yes. The pollution potential is actually much greater when it has not rained in a long time because pollutants can build up on all impervious surfaces. In any storm, the initial runoff, or first flush, is the most contaminated. Contrary to what some people believe, stormwater charges are not based upon rainfall. Costs are incurred to reduce pollution. Rainwater is simply the carrier that transports the pollutants to open waterways.

Q: How is unoccupied property treated?

A: In general, vacant non-single family rental property and empty buildings are charged because they generate runoff similar to that generated by occupied property. The one exception is vacant single family rental houses. Single family property on which water and sewer service is interrupted because of tenant turnover will not be charged the stormwater utility during the transition period.

Q: I have a gravel driveway and no gutter lines that go to the street. Why do I have to pay for everyone else?

A: You are not paying for everyone else. Gravel is an impervious surface. Like concrete or asphalt, it functions as a barrier to absorption. Only land with no disturbance of natural cover functions as cleanly as possible.

Q: Why are the storm water and sewer systems separate?

A: Unlike waste water, which is treated before it is released back into the environment, storm water goes directly into a community's ponds, streams and lakes. Because stormwater comes in large amounts at unpredictable times, treating it as waste water would be very expensive.

Q: How did the city determine impervious surface area?

A: For single family homes, a statistical sampling was taken of representative properties in Greensboro. Each was measured and an average impervious surface area was determined. For businesses and other institutions, the city measured the impervious area using aerial survey data.

Q: Why has Greensboro chosen to institute a separate fee for storm water management?

A: There are several reasons. First, a fee based on impervious surface area is an equitable way to charge and collect revenues for this program. Second, the federal government required that we designate a stable and continuous source of funds to ensure compliance. By establishing a dedicated funding source through storm water fees, the city can ensure that the millions of dollars required to manage and maintain this important system are available.

Q: How is Greensboro going to treat storm water drainage systems on private property under this new utility?

A: The city must protect the entire drainage system, publicly or privately owned, from pollution. The city will work with private property owners to advise them on practices to follow to reduce or eliminate pollution. The city will enforce ordinances against improper disposal or dumping if voluntary compliance does not occur.

Q: What can I do to reduce pollution in storm water runoff?

A: Creating natural areas on your property can help reduce the quantity of stormwater runoff. Disposing of wastes properly, using the minimum amount of chemicals on your yard, and keeping your car well-maintained can reduce the amount of pollution that you add to storm water runoff.

Q: I'm already paying waste water charges. How come I am being billed twice?

A: The bill is for two different services. Waste water charges cover sewerage disposal which results from your use of drinking water. The charges are for treatment of the waste water from your home or business. The stormwater charge supports programs to reduce or eliminate the pollution of storm water caused by residents and businesses.

Q: I rent my house. Why am I being charged?

A: Responsibility for utility services is assigned by the city to the user of property. At some times, that user is the owner and, at others, it is a renter. Generally, the owner is assigned responsibility for utility service costs and can choose to pass the costs on to tenants.

Q: Who is eligible to receive a credit?

A: Any owner or manager of non-single family property can apply to the Stormwater Management Division for approval of certain structural and programmatic activities that make property behave as if it had less impervious surface. The stormwater credit policy is used to calculate the appropriate utility credit.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]


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