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MAY 2007: Stormwater


Sophistication and implementation, Part 2

This article is the second of a three-part series addressing the current state of stormwater management in the Atlanta area. Part 1 focused on stormwater management issues; Part 2 deals with redevelopment and professional certification; and Part 3 will focus on the Endangered Species Act and its implications for stormwater management.

The series focuses on causes, effects, and remedies leading to the establishment and refinement of administrative procedures, professional trust, proactive approaches, and the elimination of obstacles.

Redevelopment and Professional Certification

As a supplement to Part 1, which discussed issues ranging from floodplains to best management practices (BMPs), stream buffers and field inventories, and professional rights and responsibilities, Part 2 addresses challenges associated with innovative applications of accepted methodologies and who has (or wants) the responsibility and authority to deem which application should be allowed—and when.

Redevelopment Versus New Development Standards

The issues are these:

  • What do you do for redevelopment where sites can be well constrained—even beyond what the smaller, undeveloped lots experience?
  • How can a variance procedure help without being viewed as arbitrary, unfair, and leaving the community in a state of noncompliance?
  • How do you manage stormwater and watershed health without slowing or stopping a collaborative and flexible process?

Many times, stormwater initiatives do not provide instant or obvious returns, which makes it difficult to recognize their full value. Moving forward with any significance and putting theory into practice begins with a leap of faith, and the momentum either continues or stagnates.

As discussed in Part 1 of this series, while the following issues generated doubt they also inspired discussions and actions to ensure that they were addressed.

Flexibility and Liability—How flexible and conservative can your stormwater management initiatives be when you are dealing with rain and land development—two random and unpredictable events? Stormwater management is a well-regulated field of expertise, with federal, state, and local regulations that can lead to penalties when not followed. While technical methods are typically conservative, logical, and based on reasonable assumptions, being too conservative and simple in order to alleviate the fear of consequences can limit options and increase costs. On the other hand, being too flexible with respect to more inventive methods can lead to inconsistent practices and standards. Historically, being conservative in the technical approach has been a way to apply techniques that are easier to implement without the fear of consequences. However, space limitations and other controlling site features associated with redevelopment require some out-of-the-box thinking and a balanced approach.

Occasionally new technologies and/or techniques allow you to develop or redevelop a site as planned and meet stormwater management requirements. All types of new products are advertised and introduced at events such as StormCon and are being used with success. Even though the number of new BMPs increases yearly, not all of them have been field tested. So how much information do you need to place your trust in new techniques or technologies, and who is qualified to certify that a new product will work as intended—the designer, the vendor, or the community? There are questions associated with new BMPs such as the following:

  • Will the product work as touted?
  • Who is liable if the product does not perform?
  • Who takes the responsibility? If not the community, can it delegate that responsibility, or has the community unknowingly shared it by allowing the process to move forward? Can the community afford to delegate the responsibility? The community should remain focused on the goal to improve the manner in which land is developed. The Atlanta area is doing this through special committees who ask questions and acknowledge and assess the value of the risks, which ultimately provides the community and stormwater managers the confidence to make sound decisions.

Offsite Mitigation—More communities are applying watershed planning concepts to vacant, eyesore parcels where even the most liberal and innovative site layouts and BMP choices do not meet the stormwater management goals and standards. Rather than simply abandoning the idea of redevelopment for that site, communities are seeking out and identifying other undeveloped sites farther downstream that have room for BMPs. This approach allows them to treat the pollutant load from the upstream redevelopment site at the downstream parcel that can accommodate BMPs. This is not a new concept, and it isn’t easy to do for developers or local plan reviewers, but it is an option worth investigating.

The Finish Line—The question to consider with redevelopment: What is “good enough?” For new development, the Atlanta region requires an 80% reduction of the sediment load (total suspended solids) resulting from the postdevelopment changes (e.g., added imperviousness). When looking to redevelop properties that initially were developed under the “old” stormwater management standards, you are faced with another dilemma: hold fast to the 80% reduction rule and risk forcing the developer to decide not to redevelop the property, or accept a lower standard knowing that things will be improved under the proposed redevelopment plan. The first response (and a valid argument) to that scenario may be “If we let one person get away with it, they’ll all want to do it.” If we recognize the differences between developing new, impact-free parcels and redeveloping older, impacting sites and acknowledge that the reason for having an 80% reduction load in new development is to counter the increased pollutant loads from past development, it all begins to make sense. Many watershed improvement studies are based on finding ways to improve the effectiveness of existing BMPs—not necessarily to 80% efficiency but enough to make it worthwhile and undo a little bit of the past. The goal is making things better, while still growing.

Professional Certification

The procedures were followed, the proper control measures were applied, and a good postdevelopment stormwater management plan was developed, but who can certify it? The latest revisions to the Post-Development Stormwater Management Model Ordinance states that only the following four of the original 12 elements in the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District (MNGWPD) model ordinance for postdevelopment stormwater management must be certified by a professional engineer:

  • Existing conditions hydrology
  • Postdevelopment hydrology
  • Stormwater management system
  • Postdevelopment downstream analysis
Flow meters for water monitoring in Georgia
E&SC is part of stormwater management.

If this revision is accepted, either a professional engineer or a registered landscape architect can control the plan, while portions of it may be prepared and stamped by a registered landscape surveyor. Depending on your position, this ruling can be considered progress or a compromise. The debate continues in the Atlanta region, including some very passionate discussions about self-regulation. This can be unsettling, recognizing the conservative nature in which the formal responsibility and liability for stormwater management has been approached by many communities. Do you leave it up to each profession, all of which have been exposed to the subject matter through academic training, professional certification, and/or professional work experience? After all, all professions have both types of performers—those that meet and exceed the technical needs of the task and those who should not be doing this work until they are trained and experienced. But is it too late when you have had to make a formal complaint regarding one’s competence to the State Professional Licensing Board? Are we justified in excluding or limiting some professions from providing such certifications? Is it the community’s right to view the professional rights and privileges granted by the state as the minimum level of qualification and supersede them with higher minimal qualifications at its discretion? Is the cost of excluding or limiting the involvement of one profession(s) worth it, in terms of reducing the number of capable professionals available to the development community, based on an administrative categorization? The following programs may offer some insight into how these issues may evolve:

Prequalification—The prequalification process to provide professional services to certify stormwater management plans, hydraulic analyses, and designs is basically twofold.

  • The client sends a Request for Qualifications to a firm.
  • The firm responds with a Statement of Qualifications (SOQ) describing its capabilities and experience. In some communities, an SOQ is required just for the firm to have the opportunity to bid on a project.

The Georgia Department of Transportation employs a unique prequalification process that requires at least two qualified individuals to be employed at the firm in order for it to be awarded the contract.

Certification—Stormwater control measures for construction and postdevelopment have evolved from a general task to one that requires specific certifications set by various professions or by federal and state agencies. An example of one such certification program that may begin to shape future discussions on certifications is that for erosion and sediment control (E&SC). In order to certify a construction E&SC plan in Georgia, you must have passed the state certification by December 31, 2006.

Collecting water samples near a drainpipe

There are currently two opinions regarding whether registered landscape surveyors and registered landscape architects can certify postdevelopment stormwater management plans since they can certify E&SC plans. Both types of work are related, but are they similar enough to make it clear that certification for E&SC automatically allows for stormwater management plan certification? Not in the opinion of many, who note that the ES&C program does not address the same technical issues as the postdevelopment stormwater management requirements elements in the MNGWPD model ordinance. There is no advantage to a professional engineer, registered landscape architect, or registered landscape surveyor; however, if one certification program can evolve that focuses on actual skills of the individual and not on typical or historical training and roles of that profession and includes a wider group of state-registered professionals, then this discussion needs to continue.

The final part of this three-part series will appear in the next issue of Stormwater and will highlight the Etowah Habitat Conservation Plan—a watershed program that supports the Endangered Species Act for the most aquatically diverse watershed in the nation. The project shows that progress can be made and success gleaned by identifying and dealing with obstacles as opposed to sticking with the status quo under the guise of not having enough information, money, or authority at our disposal.

There are precedents being set on many levels—procedural compliance, effectiveness, responsibility, and liability. We are bridging gaps for better use of our technical resources so that progress will continue and the fear of consequences will not stagnate by the following:

  • Encouraging dialogue and sharing information
  • Enabling people to do their jobs
  • Implementing useful techniques
  • Developing/refining administrative procedures

Conservativeness is still needed in order to get the rules in place as quickly as we can to protect, rather than perpetually restore, our watersheds. The perspective from those taking the lead will involve communities, that may not have solved these stormwater management issues but have clearly recognized them and taken steps to either move forward or determine how to prepare themselves to move forward.

Return to: 2007 Feature Stories