Commission's Stormwater Resolve Rises

Is County Commission finally getting serious about protecting water quality?

Last June an East Knox County activist, Laura Cole, went before County Commission to appeal for help in quelling muddy stormwater runoff onto her property from an adjacent hillside subdivision. Despite two years spent seeking enforcement action against the subdivision developer under the county's stormwater ordinance, Cole said the runoff problem has continued unabated. And she admonished commissioners that, "More sites like this—maybe worse—will continue unless we find the political will to enforce the stormwater ordinance and protect the community from this kind of destruction."

Fortunately for Cole and others like her, that political will now appears to be manifesting itself. With Commissioner Tony Norman in the lead, Commission last month unanimously approved a resolution to form a committee to review the stormwater ordinance and its related planning processes, as well as its enforcement. At an earlier meeting Norman told the county's stormwater management coordinator, Chris Granju, that, "I think this body is willing to help you. If you took a vote, I think it would be a 16-to-2 type vote that we want to equip and empower you to do whatever you need to do to help preserve the streams and creeks of Knox County."

Runoff from construction sites is a prime contributor to the sediment that is contaminating these waterways. As a retired high school biology and ecology teacher, Norman has long been concerned about this condition. "There are 500 miles of streams in Knox County, and there are probably 400 miles that are significantly impacted," he ventures. But as much as he would like to make them better, he believes the emphasis for starters has to be on preventing them from getting worse.

"It would cost a gazillion to remediate a lot of these streams, but you don't do that unless you fix the cause of the problem. Once you get a process in place and you're not doing any more damage, then you can start to get streams back into the condition where they were before all the scouring took place," he says.

The process encompasses examining the way in which plans for new developments are evaluated and approved, and then tracking developer adherence to the covenants they've agreed to. Granju believes the plan's approval process has been improved of late as well as the policing. He cites increasing use of low-impact development (LID) techniques for reducing stormwater runoff, and claims, "We have a lot more stringent requirements for verifying that controls are in place and effective as well as inspection protocols that help catch issues a lot earlier than may have been the case in the past."

Norman sees it differently. "Since I've been in office we have approved dozens of stormwater covenants with new development, and I think they are all deficient, every single one, and will lead to bigger problems in the future." As for inspections and enforcement, "They've got such a small department, all they can do is put out fires. They triage the worst ones, and that's something we are going to take up in this review process," he says.

Granju's departmental budget of $1.3 million and staff of 17 includes 10 full-time construction inspectors, four of whom were added in 2007. When asked if that's enough, he is frank to answer, "No." But he adds, "We are significantly improved, but if we want a higher level of services, we need more eyes on the ground."

Two years ago, a stormwater advisory board appointed by Mayor Mike Ragsdale recommended a quadrupling of the county's stormwater staffing to 66 positions with an annual operating budget of $7 million. In addition, the board foresaw a need for as much as $50 million in capital outlays for remediation projects ranging from bridge, culvert, and pipe replacements to new detention ponds and creek-bed restoration.

To pay for all of this, the board unanimously recommended the creation of a stormwater utility with the authority to impose stormwater user fees on every piece of developed property in the county. For commercial property, the fee would be based on its impervious area such as its roofs and paved surfaces. For individual family residences, where measurement of impervious areas would be an overwhelming task, a flat fee per lot, or perhaps one based on lot size, was envisioned.

When asked what's happening with the board's recommendations, one of its environmentalist members, Lisa Starbuck, says, "Best I can tell, they were filed in a cabinet never to be looked at again." But she acknowledges that fiscal constraints and political turmoil have been hamstringing county government.

Norman, for his part, views the board's recommendations as "a bit much to take on now." But he believes the review process he's initiated could set the stage for them. "If we go through this process and come out [with] that's where we're headed, I think support could be there... from what I've understood about a stormwater utility, it seems very helpful. A funding mechanism would be in place and it's widely spread with a real small impact on consumers."

With Ragsdale downtrodden from all his blunders and on the way out of office, any uplift over the next year is going to have to emanate from Commission. Fortunately, working relationships on that once-fractious body are becoming increasingly harmonious, and Norman's voice is clearly in the ascendant on stormwater issues. "I'm very pleased with the way things are on Commission right now," he says. "I'm feeling there is a political will to start making progress toward getting where we should be with our water quality."