NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– New Hanover County’s new Stormwater Services program will soon be in full swing, with teams embarking on a years-long effort to identify and map out the flow of stormwater in the unincorporated county.
Approved in December 2019, the new program marks the county’s first dedicated foray into on-the-ground stormwater services work.
“This is the first time we’re basically stepping in and saying, ‘Hey, this has gotten to a level where the county needs to have a program on behalf of the residents instead of requiring them to … do it,’” said Jim Iannucci, the county’s engineer. “We were kind of getting to a point where it was getting difficult for individual property owners to do this maintenance themselves.”
The program actually began last summer, but officials opted to forgo charging residents the fee due to Covid-19. Instead, the county engaged contractors using $4.3 million in federal funds allotted by the Emergency Watershed Protection Program to remove debris accumulated in 13 area watersheds as a result of Hurricane Florence.
Before the program launched, the county’s engineering department had a small annual budget of $140,000 used toward specific stormwater improvement projects –– nothing close to the system-wide endeavor at hand.
A new fee
As the engineering department moves to onboard a new 13-member staff to carry out the program, a new fee will be billed to unincorporated county residents on their property tax bill as a separate line item.
“In the past, we’d require a property owner to get in that ditch and remove that debris. And if they didn’t, we’d have to actually hire a contractor and place a lien on the property to recoup those funds so that their blockage wouldn’t flood someone else out,” Iannucci said. “So really it’s a different way of looking at it.”
Beginning July 1, the fee for most residential single-family properties in the upcoming fiscal year will be equivalent to about $1 a month, thanks to funding from the American Rescue Plan commissioners approved applying to the program. By the next fiscal year in summer 2022, the monthly fee will increase to $5.65 for residential properties.
If a property is already connected to a county-permitted stormwater system (i.e., a developed neighborhood with a community stormwater pond), the owners will automatically be given a 31% discount.
For non-residential properties, the fee will be calculated based on a formula that accounts for how much impervious surface area is present. For example, a commercial business with 10,000 square feet of impervious surface area would divide the area by 4,000, then multiply it by the equivalent rate unit ($1 this upcoming fiscal year, $5.65 the following year), or $14.12 a month by next summer.
What about my ditch?
Aside from questions about the fee, many unincorporated property owners are wondering: Will the county come clean out my ditch?
It’ll take at least a couple years until the new program is able to answer that question for every unincorporated property owner. First, inspectors must survey all conveyances that carry stormwater throughout the county. With the exception of permitted systems, the overwhelming majority of these conveyances –– whether it be a pipe, ditch, or creek –– aren’t yet mapped. A lot are located in backyards, Iannucci said, which complicates the process of scoping out where and how water flows.
Once the database is built out, the county may need to undergo an extensive easement-acquisition process later on in the program. If a conveyance has an easement, stormwater staff can access at any time and leave a door hanger; if it doesn’t, crews must obtain authorization from the property owner before accessing it.
Property owners are free to mow and maintain their easements up to the ditch line, Iannucci said. “Where we concentrate is the flow going through that ditch itself,” he said.
Eventually, the program could result in tree removal in overgrown or unkempt ditches.
The goal is to improve the overall flow of the area, through a long-term, systemwide lens –– “we should look at it from a watershed approach,” Iannucci said.
To answer questions regarding fee calculations and what the program will do, the county is hosting a Zoom meeting on June 23 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. For more information on the stormwater service program, visit the county’s website on the program.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org