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Warrenton working to correct miscalculations in stormwater utility fees

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Steve Butland, president of the Olde Gold Cup subdivision HOA, and past president Mark Nesfeder questioned the stormwater utility fees on their tax bills. The Town of Warrenton is working to correct the charges.

Town of Warrenton officials have discovered miscalculations in their assessment of stormwater utility fees in at least one subdivision and are working to correct the errors. The discovery came as residents of the Olde Gold Cup Association, Inc., the subdivision’s homeowners association, questioned town officials about utility fees on their tax bills that did not seem to align with a fee schedule that the town had published on its website.

“The town is aware of discrepancies; as with any new initiative, we must work through them,” wrote Town Manager Brandie Schaeffer in an email last week before these particular errors were discovered. “We anticipate issues and inaccuracies that need to be resolved as with any stormwater management program starting in any jurisdiction,” she added.

Whether the newly found errors apply to all 214 members of the Olde Gold Cup subdivision, and whether they apply to other subdivisions as well, was unclear at press time, as town officials had not responded to those questions.

On Monday, July 19, town officials took steps to address another Olde Gold Cup concern: Whether its residents will receive discounts on their utility fees because their HOA maintains four settling ponds to reduce stormwater runoff and pollution.

According to a shared email, Assistant Public Works Director Paul Bernard suggested the HOA apply for discounts on behalf of its homeowners. But HOA president Steve Butland said it was not the HOA’s role to represent members in tax bill disputes. “We can’t mediate on behalf of the individual homeowners,” he said. “We’re not their agent; we’re not their attorney-in-fact.”

The utility fees in question are being added onto residents’ real estate tax bills to help pay for stormwater runoff and anti-pollution controls mandated, but not funded, by the state. It was hoped they would raise about $800,000 annually that could be used for mitigation efforts.

The fees first appeared on December 2020 tax bills, and again in June, but those notices were just informational – to give residents a look at what their fees would be. The advance notice was to allow homeowners the opportunity to ask the town to adjust them if needed. The notices that go out in December will include the fee as part of the bill to be paid.

Residents of Olde Gold Cup, built in 2001 and situated north of Fauquier High School, were particularly attentive to the fees because their homeowners association maintains four retention ponds on its perimeter; the town had indicated it could give discounts to homeowners if they maintained ponds, rain gardens or other stormwater or pollution control structures.

In studying their fees, HOA president Steve Butland and past president Mark Nesfeder saw something odd: Their six-month stormwater management fees, of $140.10 and $77.52 respectively, did not align with the town’s published fee schedule, which stated that residential fees would be either $33.30, $41.64 or $104.22 for six months, depending on the impervious coverage on each lot. Other Gold Cup residents noticed also, and they and the Fauquier Times queried town officials about the apparent discrepancy.

Nesfeder said he had emailed the town’s stormwater mailbox on July 6 asking for information on how his fees were calculated but had not gotten an answer. Another homeowner, however, did get a response. According to an email the homeowner sent to Nesfeder, Bernard told her that the GIS system the town was using to calculate impervious areas had erroneously counted the subdivision’s streets as commonly held impervious areas. Residents had been assessed for those areas on top of the impervious areas on their individual lots. Indeed, all three residents’ tax bills reviewed by the Fauquier Times were equally assessed $35.88 more than the published fee schedule -- suggesting that a total amount for the streets was divided among a number of residents.

Butland and Nesfeder said that much of the confusion over the fees could have been avoided if the town had been more transparent about its process. Its website could have said that residents in HOAs could be taxed for commonly held impervious areas, like community pools. The town could have told homeowners how their fees were calculated and what measures of impervious cover they were based on. That information could have been posted on the town’s website or their individual tax bills, they said.

For instance, an overhead view of Butland’s parcel shows a large backyard pool area, undoubtedly contributing to his higher fee. But at least half of the deck is made of permeable pavers that allow rain to pass through, something that would not be evident from overhead imagery. Also, he argues, his pool is a collector of rainwater, not a shedder. ” Just show us how you calculated it,” said Butland. “People should not have to pry out this information.”

While town officials are now working to correct the overcharges in time for the December tax bill, Butland noted that the town’s tax bills typically go to homeowners’ mortgage holders. He said one neighbor already told him that her mortgage company had asked for an escrow payment by September for the new utility fee or her mortgage payment would go up.

But the more complicated issue may be how or whether Olde Gold Cub owners – and presumably others in subdivisions that also maintain stormwater retention ponds – can get discounts on their fees. The Gold Cup officials say their HOA has spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on their retention ponds over 20 years – for lawn-mowing, cleaning, inspections, insurance and fencing. For instance, the HOA just spent $68,332 to put a new fence around one pond and plans to do three more.

For homeowners to qualify for credits to reduce their stormwater fees, they must submit, at their own expense, an application for an “on-site stormwater management facility.” It must include eight items, some of them detailed and lengthy, including a drainage area map and the impervious area treated; a narrative of the known maintenance history and significant repairs; and a completed inspection checklist signed by a professional engineer.

Butland says the process is overly complicated and designed to discourage applications. In addition, he says, the town already has many of the items, such as annual inspection reports and maps. “You’re asking us to provide information that you are already in possession of? Is that doing us a service?” he asked.

According to Nesfeder, while Bernard suggested the HOA act on behalf of the homeowners, he also cautioned that because the ponds were old, they provide limited stormwater improvements. He noted that the maximum discount on homeowners’ utility fees would be 10% for water quality improvements and 10% more for stormwater flow.

“And at that point, I'm sitting here going, well, if we're spending tens of thousands of dollars to maintain obsolete and ineffective ponds,” said Butland. “I'm wondering what our options are.”

“The town now has officially come back and said they're only 10% efficient or only worth 10% credit,” he said. “They're old, obsolete and built under old standards. Can we just fill them in and take no credit? Charge me the 100% and we fill them in and let everything run off the way it's supposed to?”

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