Stormwater floods farmers with fees

SALEM, Ohio – Farmer Joe Marconi trudged out to his mailbox in southwest Ohio last month, expecting the typical electricity and phone bills, but got a surprise when a $450.82 statement for stormwater greeted him instead.

Nearby, Steve Proeschel also reached into his mailbox and pulled out a similar bill for $213. Proeschel’s father, Dave, had a bill that set him back $677.

These bills were the city of Trenton’s attempt to fund an Environmental Protection Agency program to control stormwater runoff.

The new regulations took effect in March, leaving it up to local governments to work out the kinks, including how to raise the money for systems designed to handle stormwater.

Government’s job. Although most governments don’t have final drafts in place yet, residents can expect them soon. And landowners need to be careful so they aren’t blindsided like the farmers in Trenton.

“The door is wide open for them,” said Ohio Farm Bureau’s Larry Gearhardt, director of local affairs. “It’s a prime example of an unfunded mandate where the government says, ‘You shall clean up stormwater,’ but then it’s up to the local government to decide how to do it.”

District’s choice. Whether farmers will face excessive costs will depend on how the districts choose to charge property owners, said Larry Antosh, the bureau’s director of environmental research.

“If the district allocates charges based on a property’s impervious surface, most farmers should be OK,” he said.

“But if property owners are billed on the total amount of land they have within the district, then farmers could face some pretty big expenses.”

This was the case in Trenton where funding plans were based on square footage of land. Since farmers are often the largest landowners, the funding placed a large brunt of the burden on agriculture.

Impervious surface. Another way local governments are considering is by the amount of impervious surface someone owns.

Impervious surfaces, such as rooftops, parking lots, driveways, feedlots or other hard surfaces, do not allow rainwater to permeate the soil whereas crop and pasture land allow rain to soak in.

Gearhardt said this could end up being a problem, too, because farmers have more pavement and buildings than the typical resident.

Pollutants. Gearhardt said the program is aimed at reducing non-point source pollution. These pollutants are things like oil and gas on the asphalt in parking lots and the fertilizers and chemicals in yards and fields.

The federal clean water act was amended to include control of stormwater, and in 1990, Phase I went into effect. It affected municipalities with more than 100,000 people. In Ohio, that was Akron, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Cincinnati, Gearhardt said.

Phase II. Phase II affects communities with 1,000 or more residents per mile.

This means an additional 280 Ohio urban areas, 35 counties and many townships will start paying for the program, Gearhardt said.

Local governments need to realize farmland acts as a sponge and soaks up stormwater – meaning the land is actually more of a benefit than a detriment to stormwater, Gearhardt said.

In addition, he said some farms have retention ponds or other ways to control runoff.

Being careful. “People need to be vigilant and pay attention to their governments and their decisions,” said Marconi after learning his lesson the hard way in Trenton.

Although Marconi had heard talk of stormwater billing, he had no idea it would be $5,400 a year for his 104 acres.

After getting help from Gearhardt and talking with city officials, Trenton farmers got the rules changed and Marconi’s most recent bill was $4.85.

“Be there and be careful with how they interpret the rules,” Marconi warned. “Make sure you’re not coming down on the wrong side of the budget.”

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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