What is stormwater runoff?
Stormwater runoff is the rainwater and snowmelt that flows off land through a series of pipes and swales, flowing into local streams and rivers. Some rainfall is absorbed into the ground and some of it evaporates, but much of it simply runs off the property. As it flows across homes, parking lots, schools, and factories, it accelerates, picks up pollutants, and carries them to the Schuylkill River, either directly or first through one of Upper Merion’s stream networks (Valley, Gulph, Crow, Trout).
What is impervious surface?
Impervious surfaces are hard surfaces that do not allow rain or snow to soak into the soil. These surfaces include rooftops, driveways, patios, sidewalks, and crushed stone parking lots.
Why do we need to manage stormwater?
Upper Merion Township continues to develop and redevelop. As this occurs landowners grade soil and change land cover. These changes impact how stormwater runs off the landscape. Hard surfaces prevent stormwater from soaking into the ground. So, the greater the amount of hard surfaces that exist, the more stormwater flows into our streets, through our culverts, under bridges, and into our streams. Fast-moving runoff from impervious surfaces may also back up in pipes and cause flooding to streets and basements. As more water flows to the streams and does not soak into the ground, more oil, grease, sediment, and other pollutants enter our local water bodies.
Upper Merion’s stormwater drainage network was originally developed to move water out of the Township as quickly as possible. Today, the Township requires management of runoff from new development and redevelopment by controlling the amount, quality, and speed of runoff. Upper Merion’s stormwater management regulations for new development are compliant with Pennsylvania’s standard.
In addition, the Township must make sure that stormwater pipes and basins are clear and function properly to reduce flooding and the threat of pollution of local streams and rivers.
Is stormwater a problem in Upper Merion?
Yes. Over the years, as the Township grew, the Township developed or inherited a network of curbs, gutters, inlets, swales, and pipes to carry runoff to the local streams. With time, the drainage system requires increased maintenance to address issues such as pipes collapsing, swales growing thick with weeds, and catch basins crumbling. Fast moving water through the system picks up litter, sediment, and debris, depositing it into local streams. Township crews perform regular inspections and know the location of many of the problem areas that need regular cleaning and frequent repair. However, with available resources, the Township may only be able to make the most critical repairs. When repairs are not made, pipes degrade or can become blocked, causing streets and property to flood, streams to erode, and increases in the discharge of pollution. In addition, as intense storms become more common, the existing pipes and culverts become overwhelmed and cause floodwaters to backup on to roads and into private property
Are the Township’s streams healthy?
There is room for improvement. All of the streams flowing through Upper Merion are designated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) as unhealthy. Stormwater is designated as the primary source of pollutant discharges into the streams. Stormwater runoff from our urban landscape washes oils, grease, sediment, lawn fertilizer/pesticides, animal waste, grass clippings, and other materials into our streams. Hard surfaces also accelerate and concentrate the flow of runoff to local streams, flowing quickly through streams to erode streambanks and deposit sediment on the stream floor. Stormwater flows from the urban landscape to local streams resulting in streams that do not meet PADEP’s physical and biological standards for healthy streams.
Does flooding occur in Upper Merion?
It is not uncommon for high flows in local streams to impact roads and property in the Township. The Township’s Highway Division within the Department of Public Works monitors specific street intersections during storms where flooding caused by clogged pipes may block streets. Prior to significant rainfall events, the Township dispatches crews to clear stormwater inlets and make sure pipes are open and can receive rainwater. Some storms can produce excessive rainfall runoff resulting in sediment and debris blocking storm sewers and stream channels. When this happens, the Township cleans out storm sewers and culverts immediately following storms. This helps to prevent stormwater from backing up onto streets and private property during the next storm.
Even with proper maintenance, large storm events will still cause streams to overflow. Undersized pipes and culverts will cause water to back up on to roads and into private property. UMSSA completed a Township-Wide Stormwater Management Plan in 2019 that describes locations across the Township where flooding occurs and potential solutions for upsizing pipes and culverts.
Who decides the Township’s stormwater management priorities?
Supported by Township staff, Upper Merion keeps a list of the most important stormwater projects requiring attention. Every year, the Public Works Director considers these priorities when creating an annual budget request. The elected officials make decisions on purchasing new equipment, funding large pipe/culvert replacement projects, and directing the Public Works Department to perform services. When needs are identified, staff present recommendations for project funding priorities to the Board of Supervisors, who are responsible for approving the spending plan.
In 2021, the Township Board of Supervisors signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with UMSSA that defined UMSSA’s new role to identify priorities for flood mitigation projects. This MOU lays out how UMSSA and the Township will coordinate the development of a Three-Year Capital Plan that defines priority flood mitigation projects and funding sources.
What stormwater services does the Township of Upper Merion provide?
Based on the 2021 MOU between UMSSA and the Township, UMSSA has committed to prioritizing flood mitigation projects and document them in a Three-Year Capital Improvement Plan. UMSSA will administer a stormwater user fee to raise the revenue to design and construct these projects to reduce the impact of flooding on the transportation network in the Township.
How do federal and state water quality permits apply to Upper Merion?
PADEP administers the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program in Pennsylvania, a federal water quality mandate within the Clean Water Act. One aspect of the NPDES program is the municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permit for municipalities in urbanized areas. Upper Merion was permitted in 2004 for discharges from the public storm sewer system. To comply, the Township performs and tracks its activities educating the public about stormwater management, inspects the storm sewer for illegal connections and dumping, and enforces ordinances requiring proper stormwater management best practices as part of the development process. Beginning in 2019, the Township’s MS4 permit required the Township to initiate a process to reduce the amount of sediment discharging from the MS4 into local streams. Solutions selected by the Township may include rain gardens, an expanded street tree network, or stormwater filters on inlets.
Who benefits from stormwater services?
Everyone benefits. The Township’s and UMSSA’s goals for managing stormwater include keeping roads clear of water and debris, reducing the risk of flooding, protecting public culverts and bridges from damaging floodwaters, and reducing the amount of pollutants entering local water bodies.
How does Upper Merion currently pay for these services?
Currently, the Township pays for the stormwater management program through resources appropriated from the Township’s General Fund. Stormwater management activities share this funding source with many other Township activities. The result is that funding for stormwater management may vary from year to year as it competes with other Township priorities for General Fund resources. Therefore, opportunities to plan for the future are limited. Funding is generally unable to keep pace with the growing stormwater needs. The General Fund revenue is predominantly from real estate taxes and earned income tax. Increasing funds spent on stormwater services and capital projects could mean cuts to other Township services or increases in the General Fund sources such as a property tax increase.
What funding gaps exist in the stormwater program?
Although the Township spends approximately $760K annually on stormwater projects, no funding is dedicated for capital projects. Specifically, no funding is dedicated to addressing large-scale projects that could address areas of flooding in the Township. The Township’s 2019 Township-Wide Stormwater Management Plan recommended flood mitigation projects with a total cost of $28M. As large storms occur, infrastructure deteriorates over time, and the Township learns more about the condition of the storm sewer network, this projected total cost is expected to grow.
What sources of funding are available to fill this gap?
Grant funding for stormwater projects from Pennsylvania, the federal government, or other sources is limited and highly competitive. The Township may apply for this type of funding, but it is not a dependable source for long-term financing of infrastructure improvements.
The Township has access to infrastructure funding resulting from federal recovery and infrastructure bills. However, these sources are finite, have a limited timeline for execution, and may be directed toward other Township projects.
For a long-term approach to mitigating the impact of flooding, the Township and UMSSA signed a Memorandum of Understanding that states that UMSSA will select and fund flood mitigation projects. This new responsibility will be addressed by revenue generated from a stormwater fee. This method equitably distributes the cost of stormwater management across all Township landowners using a dedicated revenue that allows UMSSA to plan on a consistent level of funding for projects.
How is a stormwater user fee different from a tax
Real estate taxes are collected from parcel owners, based on the assessed value of the property including land and buildings. These taxes are managed within the General Fund to cover costs for a variety of general government services. Real estate taxes do not apply to tax-exempt parcels that place a demand on the stormwater system by contributing runoff from buildings and parking areas. Montgomery County records show that over 260 parcels in Upper Merion are tax exempt (totaling over 2,200 acres) and do not contribute real estate taxes to the General Fund.
In contrast, a user fee is charged to support a specific service, such as gas, electricity, or drinking water. A user fee is dedicated to a specific program of services and cannot be used for anything else. Because a user fee generates a defined amount of revenue each year for a dedicated purpose, it allows for long-range planning of projects that serve the public. A stormwater user fee would distribute the cost of the stormwater management program to every parcel owner in the Township based on the amount of impervious area.
Who will pay the stormwater fee?
Every property in Upper Merion with an impervious area of at least 500 square feet will be charged a stormwater user fee. Homeowners, commercial property owners, nonprofit entities, tax-exempt properties, and public facilities, including municipal government and the school district, will pay the fee. Property owners that do not currently have sewer service for their property will receive a stormwater-only bill.
When will ratepayers receive their first bill?
Based on the current schedule, the fee will go into effect on January 1, 2023. All Upper Merion Township property owners would receive their first stormwater bill around July 1, 2023. UMSSA would then bill ratepayers twice a year in January and July.
Do public properties pay the fee as well?
Yes, all properties with greater than 500 square feet of impervious area will pay the fee. The only exceptions are Township, County, and State-owned roads that lie outside parcel boundaries. These roads will not be charged because the curb and gutter systems, inlets, roadside swales, etc. are an integral part of the Township’s stormwater conveyance system.
What activities will be funded by a dedicated stormwater fee?
The revenue provided by the stormwater user fee will fund the design and construction of projects that will reduce the impact of flooding in the Township. Projects recommended in the 2019 Township-Wide Stormwater Management Plan that will have the greatest benefit to the Township’s roadway network will be considered for a Three-Year Capital Plan. This Plan will describe UMSSA’s priority projects that will be implemented. The Plan will be reviewed on an annual basis and will be coordinated between UMSSA and the Township Board of Supervisors. The Three-Year Capital Plan adoption process and annual review will be open to the public for input. Flood mitigation projects that have limited benefit to the transportation network or public facilities may not be high priorities.
The 2021 Memorandum of Understanding between UMSSA and the Township defines the division of stormwater responsibilities. Some of the following stormwater management activities that will remain the responsibility of the Township, and not be funded by the stormwater fee include:
- Operations and maintenance of the stormwater network;
- Compliance with MS4 water quality regulations;
- Property owner response;
- Land development plan review;
- Street sweeping; and
- Storm response (street barricades, debris removal, etc.)
How will the stormwater fee be calculated?
The rate structure assigns each single-family residential property (detached houses, twins, and townhomes) a single billing unit.
Based on statistical analysis, a typical single-family residential parcel includes approximately 3,075 square feet of impervious surface; all non-single-family residential properties (such as commercial properties, institutions, and multi-family apartment buildings) will be assigned one billing unit for every 3,075 square feet of impervious area on their parcel. A commercial property with 30,750 square feet of impervious area will be assigned 10 billing units and their fee will be 10 times more than a single-family residential property.
Why base a fee on impervious surface?
In general, the more impervious area property has, the more runoff flows from the property, placing a demand on the stormwater network and receiving streams. Billing based on impervious surfaces establishes the rational link between the need for a public drainage system and the services required to maintain it and the cost of those services.
How much will the fee be?
UMSSA considered the estimated $28M backlog of flood mitigation projects included in the 2019 Township-Wide Stormwater Management Plan and decided that the fee should generate annual revenue of $2.1M. Based on the number of billing units on properties across the Township, UMSSA stormwater bills will be $31 twice each year for each billing unit. Each single-family residential property will be charged a total of $62 annually. Non-single-family residential properties will be billed a total of $62 each year for each billing unit calculated for their property.
Will the fee change in the future?
UMSSA can adjust the rate in the future through action taken at their public meetings. Changes to the fee will be based on UMSSA’s decision to change the amount of funds needed to meet flood mitigation goals or to address additional stormwater management responsibilities.
My property has stormwater management structures already. Will the fee still apply?
Yes. Runoff flows off of every property into Upper Merion’s storm sewer, local streams, and eventually the Schuylkill River. Properties that have existing stormwater basins constructed under the land development regulations in place at the time of construction and all new land developments complying with current land development regulations will all be charged a stormwater fee for impervious areas.
What happens if I don’t pay my bill?
The UMSSA resolution includes a provision that if a landowner fails to pay on time, UMSSA can take action to collect the fee and assess a late payment charge. UMSSA is authorized to use a collection agency to collect payments, issue a citation, place a municipal lien, and initiate a civil suit. The collection fees and other legal costs may be added to the total owed on the delinquent account.
What if my property is classified incorrectly or I think my impervious area is wrong? How can I appeal my bill?
An appeals process handles these types of potential errors in billing. Property owners can submit an appeals application with a written statement regarding the nature of the appeal and the information that supports a correction for errors or inaccuracies. Appeals related to the amount of impervious area or billing unit calculation must include a plot plan, map, aerial image, or similar information detailing actual impervious surfaces currently on-site.
Is there any way to lower my bill?
Owners of properties that meet the definition of non-single family residential properties may reduce the amount of impervious surface that exists on their parcel. Once this reduction in the impervious area occurs, the property owner can submit an appeal application documenting the change so that the total impervious surface associated with the property can be re-calculated.
Since all parcels classified in the billing system as single-family residential pay the same amount regardless of the actual impervious area on the individual parcel, there is no mechanism to lower the bill for single-family residential property owners.
UMSSA decided not to establish a credit program to lower ratepayers’ fees. UMSSA evaluated a ratepayer’s potential return on investment in the stormwater control infrastructure required to earn a credit. UMSSA found that the cost of construction of structures to control stormwater was much more than the potential savings from a credit applied to the fee.
Is this stormwater fee legal?
Yes. UMSSA is adopting this bill under the specific authority granted to them by the Pennsylvania Legislature under amendments made to the Pennsylvania Municipalities Authorities Act in 2013.
How does the public submit questions or comments about UMSSA’s stormwater management?
UMSSA has been sharing information about the stormwater fee through the Township newsletter since late 2021. Public comments on the fee were initially requested through advertised public meetings held at the Township Building in May 2022. The public is always welcome to reach out to the Public Works Director to offer comments.