Maxey: Growth could bring ‘flush tax’

HARPERS FERRY – A recent string of upzonings in Jefferson County could result in a flush tax in order to meet new Chesapeake Bay waste and stormwater mandates, says one member of the area Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition.

John Maxey said he fears projected growth rates in the county could mean the county might have to purchase ‘offsets’ offered through the Chesapeake Bay Program. Experience from neighboring states, he says, shows that a new tax is often required to fund the purchase of offsets and other water quality improvements.

The Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fee – or “flush tax” is it is often called – was first passed in 2004, but was doubled from $30 to $60 dollars in 2012. The estimated $100 million a year the tax generates will be used to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and plant cover crops in fallow fields. Both are efforts to reduce the total nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment loads Maryland delivers to the Chesapeake.

“What people refer to as a ‘flush tax’ is something that was originally instituted in the state of Maryland – and now some of the counties in Virginia are starting to do it as well,” Maxey said.

Maxey said West Virginians may face the same problem if they do not manage the waste and stormwater systems associated with new residential and commercial development carefully.

“The issue with West Virginia is very tricky,” Maxey said. “West Virginia has agreed to a zero increase (in nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment).”

But, he said, that “zero increase” commitment is not based on actual measurements of the pollution in local streams.

“They don’t measure the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that is in the stream. They say it would be too difficult, too costly and too time consuming,” he said.

Instead, the pollution discharge from the county – along with the rest of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed – is simulated by a complex computer model run by the Environmental Protection Agency. To estimate the pollution the county produces, it takes into account factors like land use, population and crop production data.

The commitment to a zero increase will be troubled by a demographic inevitability: population growth. A 2011 West Virginia University study projects that Jefferson County’s population will grow by a third by 2030.

“If you expect the population to increase by 10 percent, then that translates to a projection of maybe 5 percent more septic systems and 5 percent more of people’s waste going to the water treatment plants,” said Alana Hartmann, Potomac Basin coordinator with the Department of Environmental Protection. “Those two things – septic systems and water treatment plants – are direct inputs into the model.”

Maxey said any increase in population will translate into an increase in nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment.

“That will have to be offset by a decrease somewhere else, or a purchase of a credit from another jurisdiction,” he said.

West Virginia’s Watershed Implementation Plan focuses on one primary strategy to reduce the model’s predictions of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment discharge: so-called “best management practices” or BMPs. These include efforts like fencing streams to prevent cattle from wading into them, as well as efforts at improving stormwater management infrastructure and improving wastewater treatment facilities.

Maxey worries, however, that rezoning rural properties for residential and commercial development will make the county unable to enforce BMPs when the properties begin to be developed.

“The rezonings are just bad policy because they allow projects to be grandfathered in under the current, old rules,” Maxey said. “The new stormwater ordinance isn’t even in place yet. So once you rezone that parcel, any allowable use is allowable by right. You have given up the ability to require more modern stormwater management.”

Maxey said the county should grant conditional use permits instead of rezoning for cases of new development. This process would give the county more power to force developers to implement aggressive stormwater management systems, he said.

“There are ways of dealing with this that we can document and turn into the EPA,” he said.

Total Daily Maximum Load Program Manager David Montali points out, however, that new urban development on agricultural land could either increase or decrease the Chesapeake Bay Model’s projections of pollution discharge.

“In Berkeley and Jefferson, where a lot of the new development is occurring, it is usually not happening on forest, it is happening on agricultural land. And you have a baseline load of nutrients already there,” he said.

Since the model treats forest land as the least polluting land use, permitting new development in currently forested areas will have the biggest negative impact on its simulations, he said.

If new development involves removing row-crop fields where corn or soy is grown, that will almost surely show up as a pollution decrease in the model’s projections, since row crops tend to be fertilizer-intensive.

He said he was unsure if permitting new development in hay or pasture fields would result in an increase or a decrease.

“Right now, I think we are doing better than our goal,” Montali said, which should give the county some breathing room.

Nonetheless, it is important that new developments utilize documentable stormwater management techniques to minimize their impact on the model, he said. “As time goes on, there is going to be more urban development – hopefully with some documentable decent controls on runoff.”

“That’s the way that our plan for the Chesapeake Bay is written,” Hartman said. “It is about controlling the runoff from development.”

Maxey likened the bay mandates to a carrot and a stick, noting the program offers grant funding for efforts to reduce runoff as well as a requirement to purchase offsets if benchmarks are not met.

“And what we want to do is try to grab the carrot and avoid the stick,” he said.

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