published Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Chattanooga officials to mull stormwater rules

Lee Norris
Lee Norris
Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

For a sixth go-round, builders, developers and Chattanooga officials will meet to talk about the weather — rain specifically.

The city's stormwater regulations board will meet at 3 p.m. today at the Development Resource Center to discuss changes to the way developers in Chattanooga deal with rainwater. The city has to change its code to be in compliance with its stormwater permit from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Developers say the new changes will cost them big bucks, and they worry costs will only keep coming. The city's current permit expires Nov. 30, 2015. A new five-year permit, with possible changes, will come after that.

Under the new rules, builders of new developments and significant redevelopments have to make sure the first inch of rain stays on the property, instead of running off to adjacent properties -- and ultimately into the Tennessee River.

They can do that by using permeable surfaces for driveways and parking lots, including more landscaping and using cisterns to give rainwater a place to go.

Public Works Director Lee Norris said the new regulations have two goals in mind -- keeping the city's water clean and saving money by not wearing out the aging public infrastructure.

"The rules are about keeping water out of stormwater pipes, limiting erosion and reducing city stormwater costs," Norris said. "We are trying to keep the water where it falls, because the first inch of rainfall is when the pollutants that are collected wash out."

Norris said the goal is to keep those pollutants out of the river.

The trouble is, officials estimate that will cost developers.

City estimates show a company developing five 1/5-acre lots in a typical area would have to pay $47,000 in stormwater fees.

Jay Bell, owner of Bell Development, says that's a big number. And it has to just get passed on to consumers.

"We are concerned about the affordability of housing in Hamilton County and Chattanooga. What's happened over the last five years is the rules have become so onerous that they are pricing people out of housing," Bell said.

Bell said every rule that goes in place increases costs, and they are coming too fast.

"There's more and more rules being enacted, and it's hard to keep up with them. We want to do things the right way by the environment -- and we will. But we are concerned."

Mike Mallen, an environmental attorney with Miller & Martin who sat on former Mayor Ron Littlefield's blue ribbon stormwater panel, said that administration may have sought standards for the current stormwater permit that were "too ambitious."

"I think what the city did, which has turned out to be an expensive gamble, the city sought to have permit conditions that showed the city as an environment-forward city. But they were a little too ambitious," Mallen said.

The county at the same time renewed its permit without adding stringent environmental regulations, Mallen said. But the city was trying to fend off a $250 million consent order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up its aged sewer and stormwater system. That came down in July 2012.

Now the city is trying to juggle, Mallen says.

"There's this constant effort to keep fending off all of the elements that create noncompliance. Some of those are old infrastructures, some of them are permit conditions that are difficult to attain," he said. "The city, from my eyes is trying to make sure that it moves toward attainment, avoid notices of violation from TDEC or EPA and find a way to pay for all that."

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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