The city of Palm Coast adopted its Stormwater Utility Fee Ordinance last year to fund the maintenance of roadside swales, ditches and canals and is now considering its repeal because the way the fee is calculated isn’t fair. I agree. The real problem is where will the money come from to replace the fee?
This funding mechanism (utility fees) was created many years ago, originally in the Northeast United States, to pay for cleaning up dirty water prior to discharging it into receiving waters. The Florida Legislature included specific language that the fees charged be “proportionate to the contribution to the need for the system.”
Developed areas with roads, parking lots, roofs and lawns produce runoff with elevated pollutant loadings, which, if not mitigated, contribute to the need for the system. Specifically, those portions of the city developed prior to 1985 (i.e., development that predates Florida’s stormwater rules) depend on the roadside swales, ditches and canals for flood protection as well as to both convey and treat the runoff, and, therefore, they create a need for the construction and maintenance of that system. As a matter of fact, these parts of the city couldn’t exist without the entire drainage system.
However, developments after 1985 had to obtain water management permits that required runoff to be treated prior to discharge. In most cases, significant fill was required to raise the elevation of the site to prevent flooding and to allow the runoff to be collected in treatment ponds and then discharged into receiving waters or wetlands without lowering the natural groundwater elevations. This type of drainage system is much more expensive and doesn’t create a need for the old canal-and-swale system.
Undeveloped lands don’t increase pollutant loadings or volume of runoff and therefore don’t need the system at all and should be exempt.
The last legislative session produced a bill that exempts all tree farming from these local ordinances for this reason. But under the current ordinance, I have one client that paid less that $700 in total ad valorem taxes and received a stormwater utility bill for $7,000. The property is undeveloped and doesn’t even abut a city road. The old Masonic Cemetery is five acres on a high sandy ridge adjacent to Old Kings Road. It received a stormwater utility bill last year in excess of $6,000.
The responsibility for maintaining Palm Coast’s 40-year-old master drainage system should primarily lie with the property that needs it and benefits from it. Raising city taxes or adding a few dollars to everyone’s utility bill will still result in much of the city simply subsidizing the maintenance of an antiquated drainage system that provides them with little or no benefit. The fairest way to proceed is to amend the ordinance to reflect the original legislative intent and let the properties that create a need for the system— all the city’s roads and land developed prior to 1985 — pay for it.
Charlie Faulkner, of Faulkner & Associates, has represented some of the largest owners of vacant land in negotiations with the city regarding the stormwater fees.