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Stormwater fee hits multiple plot owners harder

Tuesday, Nov. 25 | By James Ivancic
Ray Gilbert of Midland points to his bill for Fauquier stormwater fees. Gilbert was charged twice, once for a tiny parcel containing a car port. -- Photo by Melissa Mullins
Fauquier County implemented a new $13.64 per parcel storm water management fee on July 1, but it wasn't until bills were mailed out this fall with a Dec. 5 deadline to pay it that county officials began hearing complaints from landowners about the fee.

County residents asked why there is a fee separate from the real estate tax bill. And those with more than one parcel want to know why they're charged more than once when a neighbor with a larger single parcel is charged just once.

The complaints began coming to the county supervisors' and treasurer's office soon after the bills hit taxpayer mailboxes. County Administrator Paul McCulla said his office received 30 calls about the issue.

The county's website has an explanation for the fee that points a finger of blame in another direction. In bold-faced words it's headlined “New state mandated storm water management fee.” But that, and attempts by county officials to explain, haven't calmed some critics.

McCulla said that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality ran a storm water management program until two years ago “when it decided it didn't want to do it anymore.”

“Some of us think they didn't want to increase their costs,” he said. So the state put the responsibility for the program on localities without providing funding. Some smaller counties in more rural areas were given an “opt out” and allowed to continue with a state-run storm water system.

Fauquier had two years to come up with storm water management program. Hence the county's storm water fee.

Revenue raised by the fee imposition will go to hiring a program manager and inspectors. The program costs $360,000 to run. The inspectors investigate complaints about such things as oil spills and soil being bulldozed in a way that fouls water. The program also requires builders to address storm water issues.

Warrenton residents don't have to pay the county fee since the town has its own storm water management program as do other cities, towns and other entities in the state designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as MS4 areas for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System.

Fauquier supervisors looked at adding fees that are paid through the community development department which handles planning, building and zoning matters, adding to the general tax rate, or implementing a separate storm management fee.

They opted for the separate fee, in part, to make the point that it was the result of a state mandate and “to let the public know this isn't us,” McCulla said.

That didn't wash with everyone who was billed. After complaints started coming in the county administrator said his office was asked by the supervisors to look at the issue of land owners with “sliver” parcels who are being charged for small pieces of land separate from larger parcels. There are 629 such parcels with a market value of $2,500 or less. Eliminating those parcels from future billings will cost $8,600 in fee revenue that would otherwise come to the county.

“The board will decide if it wants to do that for future bills,” McCulla said.

That action might please someone like Ray Gilbert on Germantown Road in Midland who sent in his payment for the fee with the word “RIPOFF” written boldly on the check and “highway robbery” on the bill.

He has two parcels of land, a larger one where his house sits and a smaller one on the other side of his driveway that has a carport.

“I paid $29 and something. It's not about the money. They're just finding a way to rip off people,” he said. “Somebody could have 300 acres and only pay once.”

He said he knows of someone who has three parcels and had to pay three fees and of another individual who has about 10 ft. of property on the other side of railroad tracks and was billed for it even though it's too small to build on.

Gilbert, 67, is a retired plumber. He lives with his wife and son on about eight-tenths of an acre of land. He's lived in Midland for 27 after previously living in Alexandria, Annandale and Manassas. But now he's where he wants to be. “I'm not going any further west.”

Gilbert complained about the fee to 27th District State Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel and others but he's pessimistic. “I believe they'll let the waters calm and then not do anything about it,” he said.

Gilbert was one of three Fauquier residents who complained about the storm water fee during the public comment portion of the Nov. 13 county supervisors meeting.
Anne Burhans of Broad Run was also there to speak.

“By assessing the fee on a parcel basis, some people bear much more of the burden of this program than others do. An owner with large acreage or expensive land can pay less than a small owner who happens to have his land in two or more parcels,” she told the board.

Burhans has 29 acres of land near New Baltimore in three parcels. “I am assessed three times the fees of someone who has one parcel, regardless of how large it might be or how much more desirable or expensive it might be. How is that fair?”

She did pay the fee that will be billed to land owners twice a year but she said it should be assessed the same way the conservation and fire/rescue fees are – by folding it into the tax rate.

She made the same points in an email to her Scott District supervisor, Holder Trumbo, who replied to her in part, “The legislators who did this hoped that we would do exactly as you suggest and just roll it into the general tax rate and hide their deed. For my part, I believe that the public should begin to learn how exactly the state increases their taxes in such a disingenuous manner.”

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