By: Paul Bruder, Esq.
As more and more communities begin charging property owners a stormwater fee (many are calling it a “rain tax”), those impacted by the fee are speaking out in opposition. Whether through social media posts such as Facebook groups, through letters to local political representatives, or attending public meetings, citizens are expressing their skepticism and outright anger with respect to the motivation, usefulness and amount of the various stormwater fees that are being assessed throughout the Commonwealth.
The highest visibility of such fees takes place within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, for which state and federal agencies and private groups have spent many years formulating and pursuing a cleanup strategy to reduce the flow of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment from local waterways. Pennsylvania is largest contributor of fresh water to the Chesapeake Bay, and by far the largest contributor of nutrients, which promote growth of algae blooms in the Bay, robbing the Bay of valuable oxygen and sunlight which inhibits and reduces sensitive habitats for shellfish and other aquatic life once teeming in the Bay.
Local municipalities which contain urbanized areas and separate storm sewer systems are required to meet certain pollution reduction requirements through their stormwater management permits, known as MS4 permits. In order to better manage stormwater in a way that allows municipalities to reduce the amount of nutrients being discharged local waterways, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, funding is necessary to make system improvements or develop “best management practices” that accomplish these nutrient reduction goals. Of course, municipal projects such as these cost money, and with budgets already stretched thin, stormwater fees are a way for municipalities to fund these programs.
In the typical circumstance, the fees are assessed to property owners based upon the amount of impermeable or impervious surfaces (driveways, parking lots, rooftops) that exist on an individual property. Some municipalities, or municipal authorities which encompass multiple municipalities (such as the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority), impose minimum fees for each category of residential, commercial, and agricultural properties, and then additional fees based upon the amount of impervious surface, if any. Different municipal entities are calculating fees in different ways; however, the end result is the same – an additional financial burden being placed upon local property owners to help fund a mandate from the federal government.
One common argument is that this fee is simply a new tax in disguise, and many people are angered by the idea of new municipal taxes. However, the major difference is that the fee is actually more far-reaching than a tax in that typically tax-exempt properties, such as churches and schools, are not exempt from the stormwater fee. While this may be a good thing for those who are not tax-exempt in that they feel that tax-exempt property owners are sharing the load, the downside is that many of these tax-exempt entities are faced with excessively large stormwater fee obligations due to the size of their impervious surfaces, particularly schools and religious institutions that have large impervious parking areas.
Challenges to these fees are popping up all over the Commonwealth as well, in the form of lawsuits and intervention from politicians. Recently, US Representative Dan Meuser, who represents many of the thirty-two (32) local municipalities that are members of the WVSA, has called for a suspension of the fee until there is a better understanding of them and how they might be reduced. Meuser claims that many of his constituents were “blind-sided” by the fee, despite the amount of publicity stormwater fees have been receiving state-wide over the last several years. Nonetheless, the fact remains that challenges to these fees are becoming as common as the fees themselves. Only time will tell how these matters will be played out in the court system or through the political process.
If you have any questions about stormwater fees in Pennsylvania, please call Paul Bruder at 717-232-5000, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.