Most construction in Charlotte for the next three years will not have to include environmental protections against one of the state’s biggest sources of water pollution—stormwater.
On a rainy day in Charlotte, Sam Perkins, the Catawba Riverkeeper, stands in a retail parking lot in South End. Streams of water wash into a grate, carrying oil, grease, and dirt from the lot along with it, Perkins says.
“You can see it here,” Perkins says, pointing. “Oil sheets coming off, things like that getting directly into creeks.”
The city council passed an ordinance in 2008 to filter out much of that. It requires developers to more strictly control, filter, and slow the storm water running off their developments. But in 2011, emerging from the recession and lobbied by the building industry, the council allowed developers to bypass the more onerous rules.
Instead, they can pay a fee—$60,000 for a site’s first acre and $90,000 for every additional one. The city then uses that money to restore damaged streams.
Environmental groups have objected from the start. Perkins says it does not make sense.
“When, in college, we were trying to get a friend to quit smoking, he said, ‘Look, I know smoking takes like five years off your life, but I’ve heard getting a dog adds five, so it sort of balances out.’ And that’s sort of what this is saying,” he says.
Supporters argue the fee creates flexibility and encourages development, creating jobs, while the city can funnel the money most effectively. The option was scheduled to sunset this year and the building industry wanted an extension. City staff recommended five more years.
“It gets us to the goal of clean water quicker,” Charlotte stormwater manager Daryl Hammock explained to the council late last month. “We just really look for high impact projects that provide the biggest environmental benefit for the least cost.”
Ultimately the council voted 7-4 for a compromise. Developers can take advantage of the fee for three more years—through 2017. In the meantime, environmental groups and the building industry will get together in a mediated discussion to agree on a compromise. Those meetings are scheduled to start in January.