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Stormwater fee could be on its way in Lower Swatara Township; aerial photos approved

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 3/20/18

The Lower Swatara Board of Commissioners unanimously voted March 7 to spend $125,450 to hire T3 Global Strategies to fly over the township and take photos of impervious surfaces in what will lead to …

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Stormwater fee could be on its way in Lower Swatara Township; aerial photos approved

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The Lower Swatara Board of Commissioners unanimously voted March 7 to spend $125,450 to hire T3 Global Strategies to fly over the township and take photos of impervious surfaces in what will lead to an effort to help control stormwater runoff.

The resulting data could lead to creation of a fee to fund stormwater projects.

“The township is in the same position as every municipality in Pennsylvania. We need to find ways to control runoff and have careful stormwater management,” Interim Manager Frank Lynch said in an interview with the Press & Journal.

In 2003, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a water quality permit called the Municipal Separate Sewer Program — or MS4 — that requires municipalities to establish a plan to control runoff water and sedimentation.

“There’s all kinds of regulations you have to obey to cut down on water runoff and nutrient run off into the streams, which ultimately end up in the Chesapeake Bay. With the amount of development, you also need to control storm runoff because when you have impervious surfaces like you do with parking lots, you have to be able to control that,” Lynch said.

Impervious surfaces are paved areas such as roads, parking lots and driveways.

Vice President Todd Truntz said he made the motion to accept the contract reluctantly.

“As much as I don’t like all this, I don’t see that we have much of a choice. It stinks,” he said.

Truntz called it an unfunded federal mandate.

Lynch agreed.

“It absolutely is,” Lynch said. “Sometimes state and federal agencies cook up regulations and obligations in a bubble, and they roll them down the hill at municipalities. It’s a problem, but municipalities are too often not involved in identifying solutions to a problem, but they’re almost always tasked with paying for those solutions.”

Photos will be taken by the end of the month. Processing data could take six months.

Fees vs. taxes

Township leaders see the flyover as a way to get data on how they can manage runoff, and then create a fee to fund stormwater improvement projects.

“If you are going to set up a program — which you pretty much have to — you have to find the best way to fund your obligations,” Lynch said.

Some municipalities such as Lower Swatara are able to create authorities or use current ones to manage stormwater projects. The authorities create revenue — paid for by either fees or taxes — to fund required projects “without zapping your general fund, diverting tax dollars from other functions, and not necessarily punishing real estate taxpayers,” Lynch said.

A stormwater feasibility study was conducted, and Erin Letavic of HRG Consulting Engineers told commissioners that a stormwater fee instead of a tax appeared to be more cost effective.

Solicitor Peter Henninger said a fee instead of a tax would allow the township to get funds from the tax-exempt bodies.

“[A fee] saves your homeowners from footing the bill for tax exempts,” Henninger said.

Part of the reason for the flyover is to establish scientific data so that entities in the township have less basis for challenging a potential fee.

Enter the airplane

According to Letavic, the plane is equipped with equipment to capture the 9,475 acres in the township, including typography, signs, houses, driveways and parking lots.

There are two times a year that are best to take aerial photos, Letavic said: “This time of year before the leaves pop, and late fall and winter when there is no snow on the ground, when the leaves are down, and when the sun is at the proper angle.”

The resolution of the photos is better than from a satellite, and the company can digitize the impervious surfaces, Letavic said.

Some commissioners were concerned with the fee.

“There’s no way we can do this cheap? [Commissioner Ron Paul] and I can’t rent a plane and do it ourselves?” Truntz asked.

Commissioner Michael Davies asked whether the commissioners could think about the contract and vote on it in two weeks.

“If we wouldn’t act on this tonight, I don’t know if you would have enough data to even consider a stormwater fee this year. You’d be flying blind, honestly, if you started the process, but certainly from staff’s perspective what I’m hearing is that there’s a sense of urgency to get a lot of projects started and get the funding to do it,” Letavic said.

Henninger told the board that first-class townships such as Lower Swatara are not allowed to implement a fee to fund stormwater upgrades, but pending legislation would change that.

Lynch said municipalities have the option to set up the management system through an existing authority, create a new authority or wait for state law to change. He said, for now, it’s most practical to use resources and staff of the municipal authority.

Flyover costs

During the meeting, Lynch said he would have to talk with township staff to identify where the $125,450 could come from. In an interview after the meeting, Lynch said part of the money would be pulled from the MS4 line item in the budget — which contains around $98,000 to be used for MS4 projects — and the capital improvement fund.

“The hope is once and if a funding mechanism is set up with a fee, that we will be able to replenish those real estate tax monies with money from the fee,” Lynch said.

One positive of the MS4 program, Lynch said, is it raises environmental awareness of alternatives such as permeable driveways and rain gardens to absorb water.