To: Supervisor Connelly
From: Muriel Richardson, Michael Nocchiero, Katherine Labuhn
Date: November 24, 2008
Re: Implementing a Stormwater Utility in Fairfax County
Fairfax County faces many challenges in managing and protecting its streams. The county must
conduct specific management activities as required under its Virginia Pollution Discharge
Elimination System (VPDES) Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit and as part
of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance. Currently, the county funds these management
activities by diverting one cent of the eighty nine cents collected in property taxes for every $100
in assessed value.1 Although this mechanism has provided adequate funding for stream
management activities, the recent downturn in housing prices has resulted in a decrease in the
property tax revenue thus the amount of money directed to stream management activities. This
variability in funding presents a challenge to implementing long term stream management plans
and demonstrates a need for a dedicated source of funding, independent of property tax revenue.
We believe implementing a stormwater utility is the best way for Fairfax County to insure a
dedicated source of funding for stream management activities.
Laws and Regulations Affecting Fairfax County Streams
There are two programs that require the County to perform stream management activities, the
Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance and the VPDES permit. The Chesapeake Bay
Preservation Ordinance was passed by Fairfax County in 1995 to meet the goals of the
Chesapeake Bay Program. This ordinance required the designation of resource protection areas
(RPAs).2 The RPAs are 100 foot wide vegetated buffer strips along streams where development
is regulated to prevent both degradation to the stream and to reduce the nutrients delivered to the
stream and thus to the Chesapeake Bay3. Although the designation of the RPAs has been
completed, the Chesapeake Bay Program is continually working to determine additional
measures that would mitigate the release of pollutants to the bay. Fairfax County may need to
pass further amendments to the preservation ordinance to implement additional protection
measures as passed by the Chesapeake Bay Program
The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Municipal Separate Storm
Sewer System (MS4) Stormwater Program was created under the Clean Water Act to address
non-agricultural sources of stormwater discharges. In Virginia the Department of Conservation
and Recreation administers the NPDES program and issued Fairfax County’s VPDES MS4
permit. The permit requires the county to conduct a number of annual activities in order to
reduce the delivery of pollutants to streams, maintain stormwater control facilities and conduct
public education campaigns.4
Other programs and regulations, such as the Total Maximum Daily Load program, may require
additional stream management activities in the future.
Goals of a Stormwater Utility
Stormwater utilities are created to provide a dedicated funding source to meet specific goals.
The goals of most utilities are to fund flood control projects, storm water quality improvement
projects, and stormwater infrastructure improvements. Most stormwater utilities are based on the
idea of user charges. Instead of diverting a portion of property tax receipts, a fee is assessed on
each parcel of land according to the natural and man-made characteristics which affect the
amount of stormwater delivered to a stream. Typical stormwater utility rates are based on the
amount of impervious area on the parcel, such as buildings, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks
and patios. The goals of a stormwater utility in Fairfax County would be to fund activities
related to the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance, the VPDES MS4 permit requirements,
possible flood control projects, and future stormwater quality improvement projects.
Basics of a Stormwater Utility
In a natural system approximately 50% of rainfall is used for evapotranspiration, approximately
25% infiltrates into the upper layers of the ground, approximately 25% infiltrates into the deeper
level aquifers and about 10% becomes stormwater runoff to the stream network. In a completely
urbanized system, where 75 to 100% of the land surface is impervious, the amount of rainfall
transformed directly to stormwater runoff is approximately 55%, with only about 15% of the
rainfall infiltrating into the ground and 30% involved in evapotranspiration.5 Thus the total
impervious surface area of the county has a direct impact on the health of its streams. A greater
quantity of water is delivered to the stream increasing erosion and flooding possibilities. Also,
as the stormwater runs over impervious areas it picks up pollutants that are delivered to the
Due to the levels of imperviousness in Fairfax County, an estimated 70% of all streams are
considered to be in fair to very poor condition. According to the US Census Bureau the total land
area for Fairfax County in 2000 was 395 square miles.6 Assuming 17% of that land area is
impervious, and an average yearly rainfall of 45.12 inches7, approximately 52,306,443 gallons of
additional water is forced upon the streams. In order to manage the stormwater runoff from
these impervious surfaces, more than 1,400 miles of drainage pipes are in place along with more
than 3,000 stormwater facilities to manage both the quantity and quality of this stormwater.8
Since imperviousness has a direct impact on stream condition, most stormwater utilities have a
fee structure based on percentage imperviousness. There are two main options for setting the
imperviousness for the base fee structure. The first option sets a flat fee for detached single
family dwellings and the fee for all other types of structures are based on the total
imperviousness of the parcel divided by the base square footage used to calculate the single
family dwelling rate. The second option is to total the impervious area of all the dwelling types
and divide by the total number of units.9
Montgomery County, Maryland has implemented what they term a Water Quality Protection
Charge (WQPC). This charge funds the stormwater utility, which has the goal of performing
inspections and structural maintenance on the county’s stormwater facilities. The WQPC is
applied to all residential properties and some nonresidential properties. The residential charge is
based on the average impervious area for a single family home (termed the Equivalent Rate Unit
(ERU)), nonresidential properties are billed as multiples of the ERU and multi-family properties
are billed at a fraction of the ERU. Since the goal of the WQPC is to fund inspection and
maintenance, the total cost of those activities divided by the number of ERUs sets the actual
dollar value of the charge.10
The City of Richmond has also proposed to implement a stormwater utility. Their program is a
three tiered system for single family residences based on the total square footage of the lot.
Parcels up to 1,000 square feet would pay $45 annually, parcels between 1,000 and 2,400 feet
would pay $90 annually and parcels over 2,400 would pay $135 annually. Non-profits, multi-
family and commercial properties would pay an ERU of $45 for non-profits and $90 for multi-
family and commercial properties. The City also gives partial credits for religious, non-profit
and non-residential properties who implement certain stormwater control activities on-site.11
Fairfax County would implement something similar to Montgomery County and the City of
Richmond. Using aerial photography and Geographic Information System (GIS) software the
average impervious area for detached single family dwellings would be calculated. Then
similarly to Montgomery County, non-residential and multi-family dwellings would be charged
multiples or fractions, respectively, of that rate. The actual rate would depend on the goals of the
Equitability of a Stormwater Utility
One of the questions that arise when implementing a stormwater utility is whether or not it is fair
relative to other funding mechanisms. Whether or a stormwater utility is equitable depends on
how equity is defined. There are at least four different alternative definitions of equity. The first
is that people should pay according to their ability. The second is that people should pay
according to how much they benefit. The third is that people should pay according to the extent
they use the system and the last definition is that people should pay according to how much
runoff and pollution they generate to the system.
Using the first definition of equity, people pay according to their ability, supports the use of taxes
to fund stream management activities. Those who can afford higher valued properties would pay
more taxes. Another argument that has been made is that water quality is a public good and so
should be paid for similarly to other public goods, i.e., through taxes.
The last definition is often used to support the idea of a stormwater utility. Since the amount of
stormwater delivered to a stream is correlated with impervious area, charging people a fee based
on the amount of impervious area on their property would be considered and equitable
distribution of the costs necessary to support stream management activities. 12 This is the
definition of equity we would propose as underlying the implementation of a stormwater utility
for Fairfax County.
Costs and Benefits of Implementing a Stormwater Utility
The largest cost associated with implementing a stormwater utility will be the calculation of the
average impervious area for detached single family dwellings and also to determine the
impervious area of nonresidential properties. There will also be some costs associated with
implementing a public outreach campaign to explain the stormwater utility to the general public.
The most defined benefit of a stormwater utility is that it provides a dedicated source of funding
that is independent of property taxes, thus not subject to the variability of the housing market.
Additionally, a stormwater utility is a more equitable way to share the costs of maintaining
stormwater infrastructure since all users contribute. Typically, non-profit organizations, such as
churches, are exempt from property taxes. They would not be exempt from a stormwater utility.
In order to gain public acceptance of a stormwater utility a public education campaign will need
to be developed. Fairfax County could build on its current public education campaigns for
stream protection, watershed planning, and public works.
The City of Richmond, Virginia has proposed implementing a stormwater utility. They propose
such public outreach activities as meetings with citizen stakeholder groups, public service
announcements in conjunction with radio, TV and print ads. Additionally, they conducted public
meetings and contacted non-residential and non-profit customers.13
This memo provides a description of a stormwater utility, an overview of the costs and benefits
of a stormwater utility and an overview of how to gain public acceptance for this proposal. An
analysis of the legal requirements and ramifications of this proposal was not conducted. It can
be assumed that changes would need to be made to the county’s ordinances and laws in order to
implement a stormwater utility. Additionally, an analysis of how the county’s billing system
would need to be altered to allow for the collection of the stormwater utility fees was not
Summary and Recommendations
The recent downturn in the housing market has demonstrated the downside of funding stream
management activities through property tax revenue. Implementing a stormwater utility will
provide a dedicated funding source for stream management activities. Additionally, moving
from a tax to a user charge can result in a more equitable system. Since impervious area drives
the amount of stormwater delivered to the stream network, properties will pay into the
stormwater utility in proportion to the amount of impervious area on site. Also, some non-profit
organizations that are exempt under current taxation structures will not be exempt from a
stormwater utility charge, thus increasing the base for the stormwater utility. We believe this is
an equitable solution to the goal of funding stream management activities.
Fairfax County, Virginia. “County of Fairfax, VA FY 2009 Citizen’s Guide to the Budget”. Downloaded from
http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dmb/. November 14, 2008.
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November 14, 2008.
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“Stormwater Brochure”. Accessed November 14, 2008.
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Community Meeting Presentation”. Accessed November 14, 2008.