No More Free Parking in Rhode Island?

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Stormwater utility districts. The concept may sound complicated, but it's simply a fee on asphalt and other impervious surfaces such as driveways and parking lots. The concept is not new. Some 2,000 U.S. cities and towns use such districts to pay for costly repairs and upgrades to storm drains and drainage systems.

In Rhode Island, Providence, Middletown and Bristol are considering the concept. Like most communities, they have costly infrastructure projects and no money to pay for them.

Providence has 16,000 catch basins and only two trucks capable of cleaning 10 basins daily. “I’ll let you do the math,” Sheila Dormody, the city’s director of sustainability, said during a recent presentation about local stormwater issues hosted by Save The Bay.

Providence also has 400 miles of sewers, 20,000 manholes and 175 outflows. When it rains, the city is violating environmental laws as stormwater floods streets, sewer pipes, ponds, rivers and Narragansett Bay.

“It’s a great place to live when it’s not raining,” Dormody said.

The city is calculating the costs to fix pipes and storm drains, and divert as much dirty water to treatment facilities. The fee structure for driveways, parking lots and even the footprint of a home or business has yet to be determined, Dormody said. But a fee system is better than hiking property taxes. It also may include many nonprofits such as schools and universities.

“This seems like a fair way to cover the costs,” she said.

The city is exploring a regional stormwater utility district with other communities that are also regularly violating environmental laws, such as Pawtucket, Johnston and North Providence.

Middletown likes the concept because a stormwater utility district is similar to enterprise funds. Like the town's sewer system, trash collection and beach operations, the stormwater utility district can be fully funded through fees rather than the general fund, which relies on property taxes.

“The key is we have to create a sustainable program as best we can,” said Middletown’s public works director Tom O’Laughlin.

A stormwater utility district would keep stormwater maintenance from competing with departments that are often given higher priorities for tax dollars, such as schools and police and fire departments. Middletown has had success with fee programs. O’Laughlin credits the enterprise funds for putting the town in strong financial shape. It’s pension obligations are funded; it has a budget surplus and a good bond rating. It’s pay-as-you-throw trash collection is also credited for giving Middletown the highest-recycling rate in the state.

Stormwater utility districts also help address climate change. Dormody said many neighborhoods are already suffering from flooding rivers and streams caused by more frequent and intense rainstorms. “We have flooding. We have pollution. We have infrastructure that is in desperate need of attention,” she said. “It is hurting our businesses that are already in Providence and hurting opportunities for recruiting more businesses. And we are not currently in compliance with the law, which means the environment is suffering.”

Fortunately, stormwater utility districts offer incentives for reducing the fee, such as installing rain barrels and rain gardens, planting trees and installing porous surfaces. It creates incentives to install retention ponds or rainwater basins underneath parking lots. It also encourages simply digging up unused driveways or asphalt, a concept that reduces the city’s “heat-island effect.”

“When you address stormwater management you are also addressing heat-island problems that we have in Providence. You’re addressing climate change on a local level,” Dormody said. “And you’re creating a greener, livable city. By addressing this key issue, I think we are going to get to a lot of the solutions that we need to create a more sustainable city and a more sustainable region.”

Providence is still in the early stages of planning a stormwater utility district. Middletown expects to present a plan to the Town Council in 2014. Both Dormody and O’Laughlin are presenting the concept at this Saturday's Land & Water Summit at the University of Rhode Island.