Don’t blame developers for city’s failure to maintain stormwater system
Author: Scott Smith - September 14, 2017 - Updated: September 19, 2017
Colorado Politics recently published an article titled: “Where do left and right converge? On local growth,” in which the author repeats the anti-development sentiments of a college student in the Springs.
Unfortunately, Colorado Politics made the same error as the student-journalist: Both did not call either the city of Colorado Springs or the local or state Homebuilders Association to better understand this issue. So now, I feel I have to set the record straight.
The premise of the student’s opinion is flat wrong. The city of Colorado Springs employs a program that requires developers to install the necessary stormwater improvements or pay fees into the drainage basin under a sophisticated system. This longstanding approach by the city is to periodically evaluate each drainage basin by engaging a qualified engineer, determine the required facilities and then determine a fee based on acres served. The developers construct the facilities required, dedicate the necessary land and get a credit against the fees for doing so. If they don’t build facilities, they pay the required fees into the basin account. It’s a requirement for construction.
The primary challenges faced by the city and the development community include:
Over the years, TABOR left the city no alternative other than to squeeze the stormwater maintenance budget for the improvements that the developers provided. In short, the revenue-strapped city shifted the general fund budget to overall city operations (fire, police etc.) and less to facility maintenance, neglecting the improvements that they required. Where is the logic in blaming the development community? The neglected repairs and maintenance set up a truly “pay me now or pay me later” situation. The circumstances created a significant pay me later approach. Later is now, and it’s far more expensive.
The specifications for stormwater management are constantly evolving due primarily to changing and more stringent federal regulations. This directly impacts the drainage basin calculations, especially if enacted at the retiring end of a basin. The fees can become irrationally high, forcing the city to step in and mitigate the burden.
The engineering philosophy for stormwater management has evolved over the years from an initial system that drained the city as soon as possible after a storm event with lots of concrete channels, to a system requiring more land contributions that is based on detention ponds, preserving natural characteristics and vegetation. The previous system was more maintenance intensive. The new systems are better, but more expensive to construct, and now drainage fees paying for the stormwater improvements represent as much as $5,000 per new home.
It is the city’s obligation under federal law to maintain the stormwater system, plain and simple. By agreement, through the development approval processes, developers provide the systems and dedicate the land and facilities to Colorado Springs based on city specifications and approved plans. The city — i.e. the collective residents — needs to pay for maintenance, upgrades and improvement of the stormwater facilities over time. The stormwater fee approach is the most direct allocation system for this necessary expense and is similar to programs employed by most other communities around the state and country.
Developers also construct and dedicate streets, parks and utility connections, as required by the new development that are then maintained by the city and utility providers. Those long term maintenance expenses have been a challenge for the city as well and are generally paid by the city tax collections.
The obvious analogy is purchasing a new car and neglecting to maintain your new vehicle and then blaming the manufacturer for the resulting damages. I guess that it’s easier to blame “rapacious” developers for alleged nefarious activities than really taking the time to study and truly understand the situation. Perhaps a conversation with the city or a developer would be appropriate—for anyone concerned with the stormwater issue.