Northampton City Council gives first OK to stormwater fund

The City Council unanimously approved the creation of a new stormwater and flood control enterprise fund at its meeting Thursday, but not before discussing a bevy of amendments to the ordinance crafted over the last 18 months. The required second vote is expected at the council’s March 20 meeting.

“This process has been, I think, a paragon for the community,” City Council President William H. Dwight said just before the vote. “The citizen engagement was in fact unparalleled.”

While public works officials said an exact fee for owners will not be set until later this spring, the enterprise fund calls for a four-tiered fee system based on the amount of impervious areas — roofs and pavement, for example — on their property.

The annual fee would range from $61 for property owners who have less than 2,000 square feet of impervious area; $85 for property owners who have between 2,000 and 2,800 square feet; $113 for property owners who have between 2,800 and 4,100 square feet; and $239 for properties with more than 4,100 square feet.

Terry Culhane, chairman of the Board of Public Works, said the fee could undergo small adjustments before the first bills go out, and it would be further refined in the future as the city gets more accurate data on the amount of impervious area on each property.

The ordinance as originally written called for a three-tiered fee structure in which half of all property owners in the city would pay a $99 fee for their medium-sized homes. Ward 3 City Councilor Ryan R. O’Donnell proposed an amendment to split the middle category in half, which he said is a more fair way to distribute the fee amount, especially for property owners at the lower end of this middle tier. He said many residents would end up paying for impervious surface they did not have under the original proposal.

“The purpose of this is to more correlate your surface with your bill,” O’Donnell said.

The fee for commercial, nonprofit and other large properties would be calculated on an individual basis based on the estimated areas of impervious and pervious surface on the property. These property owners would in many cases, face significant bills well into the thousands of dollars.

The new fee, if approved on second reading, would be billed quarterly beginning July 1.

The fund’s initial fee is based on an annual budget of $2 million, which public works staff estimate is needed to cover the immediate obligations to the city’s 70-year-old flood control systems on both the Mill and Connecticut rivers and a new stormwater permit from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Many of the amendments adopted Thursday were minor, although City Solicitor Alan Seewald said a pair of clauses in the ordinance attempting to cap the fee at $2 million a year violated state Department of Revenue rules.

Rather than requiring the fund’s budget to stay at $2 million for the first five years, as originally proposed, Seewald wrote an amendment directing the BPW to recommend a budget not to exceed that amount for the first five years unless they can show why it should be more.

This budget would then go to the mayor, who would include it in the city’s overall budget the council approves each spring. The council, in turn, has the final authority on approving the fund’s budget or reducing it.

After the sixth year, the BPW would continue to recommend a budget of $2 million, plus inflation, unless it can show more funding is required.

The fee would be imposed on each parcel of residential and nonresidential property, whether occupied or not. The council also approved an amendment striking an exemption for public and private land with a permanent agricultural preservation or conservation restriction. Those property owners will pay an annual fee of about $100.

The ordinance also calls for a policy that spells out how residents may earn credits to offset the cost of the fee. Among those are discounts for low-income and senior citizens and stormwater improvements, such as collecting rain.

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