Stormwater flows across municipal boundaries. Some municipalities contribute only a little to the overall flow rates in Allegheny County, and other municipalities contribute more; but because the water goes its own way, every municipality needs to keep looking for ways to make improvements.
What makes stormwater particularly difficult is that ALCOSAN is planning to implement a “flow-based rate” in the future. That means a municipality will be charged for the flow that goes through its stormwater grates, even if that flow came downhill from somewhere else. This makes it crucial for neighboring municipalities to be on the same page.
Fortunately, our Pennsylvania statutes already gave municipalities some very handy tools years ago, which are not used often enough. Here are some simple, common-sense solutions that can help a municipality take two steps forward and zero steps back. Elected officials should consult their municipal solicitors to explore which of these solutions is most suitable.
1. Multi-Municipal Planning
When coming up with a stormwater management strategy, the overall geography of a municipality must be kept in mind. Where are the most important areas? What are they right next to? This crosses into the territory of the comprehensive plan.
As an example, suppose one municipality invests a lot of money in a stormwater management facility along a highly-traveled roadway, and then a neighboring municipality builds a huge parking lot right next door. The parking lot “dumps” stormwater right on the new facility. In this example, the first municipality’s money has gone to waste – a circumstance that is preventable with multi-municipal planning.
The Municipalities Planning Code (“MPC”) allows municipalities to develop comprehensive plans together, called multi-municipal comprehensive plans, so that their interests can be better aligned. This can help ensure that a municipality doesn’t become a stormwater dumping ground for its neighbor. It also ensures that their cooperative vision continues into the future, and is not just a one-time handshake. The only requirement is that municipalities must be adjacent or in the same school district.
Looking further down the road, it might be worthwhile for two or more municipalities to set up a multi-municipal planning agency. The MPC provides for this as well. Given our region’s complicated geography, it is entirely possible that municipalities will need to be in constant cooperation with each other to ensure that their facilities aren’t wasted. Sharing planners is a way of taking planning to the next level. An added bonus is that, if planners are shared, then the costs of those planners are also shared.
This is an example of taking two steps forward: 1) ensuring the effectiveness of stormwater management facilities in the future, and 2) cutting costs in half.
2. Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreements
The MPC also allows for intergovernmental cooperation agreements, which may be necessary to properly implement a multi-municipal comprehensive plan. They are also useful for countless other purposes. Intergovernmental cooperation agreements do not require municipalities to be adjacent, and they are not limited to planning purposes.
There is a strong tradition of Allegheny County municipalities sharing services with each other, and thereby sharing costs, whether in the case of a fire department, a police fingerprinting office, or snow removal.
Stormwater management has special characteristics that make these agreements desirable. First, as mentioned above, there is a danger that municipalities can “dump” on each other because the stormwater flows downhill. The lower municipality could be stuck with a higher fee. Second, stormwater management is only really effective when it happens on a large scale. That large scale might very well cross boundaries. And third, stormwater tends to collect along highly-traveled roads, such as Brownsville in the south or McKnight in the north. Implementing a consistent strategy along the full length of the roadways will require matching policies among municipalities.
Using intergovernmental cooperation agreements, municipalities can contract with their neighbors to:
- Implement the same stormwater management facilities along a common corridor
- Maintain facilities to the same standards, or maintain each other’s facilities
- Share the cost of personnel to inspect and maintain facilities
- Enact similar land development ordinances
- Engage in regular communication on stormwater topics in the future, when the original conversation is a distant memory
If an intergovernmental cooperation agreement is violated, you don’t necessarily need to go to court. An agreement can contain language providing for peaceful mediation options instead, which gives greater peace of mind when entering into the agreement.
3. Updating Ordinances
When developing strategies to manage stormwater, it can be very beneficial to consider small changes to a municipality’s book of ordinances. Especially in the case of our older municipalities, there exist ordinances that make stormwater management strategies illegal. For instance, requiring downspouts to be connected to the storm sewer system makes rain barrels and rain gardens effectively illegal. Construction and development standards can also matter a great deal in reducing runoff.
Fortunately, help is available. In 2013, the University of Pittsburgh Environmental Law Clinic produced a report on behalf of Three Rivers Wet Weather, which explains how to update ordinances to facilitate modern stormwater management. The researchers reviewed the ordinances of over sixty Allegheny County municipalities and wrote suggested replacement language that municipalities can adapt to their modern needs. The report can be found on Three Rivers Wet Weather’s web site, www.3riverswetweather.org, along with a spreadsheet categorizing the ordinances as “barriers” or “facilitators.” Click here to go directly to the report.
Updating ordinances is an important process to engage in. It is a democratic solution that requires no extra expenditures, and it can last far into the future.
There are already plenty of powers granted to municipalities that can help combat the stormwater problem in Allegheny County. In the case of updating ordinances, they are free; in the case of multi-municipal planning agencies or intergovernmental agreements, they may actually save money. In addition to consulting with civil engineers, elected officials should consult their municipal solicitors to see what fits each individual situation best.
Neil Bakshi, Esq.
JD, University of Pittsburgh School of Law '13
MSPPM, Carnegie Mellon University '13
Our thanks to Neil, a former LGA Intern, for sharing insights and help in finding ways to help local governments respond to issues facing their community!