PWC Environmental Policy Update – We Choose Clean Water

The Environment Chapter update proposed by the Planning Commission encourages implementation of policies that were adopted in 2003, but then ignored.  For example, in 2003 the Environment Chapter recommended 50’ buffers for all intermittent streams.  It’s time to re-affirm and then implement that guidance.

Just last week, Beazer Homes agreed to pay nearly $1 million after the EPA found Clean Water Act violations at their development sites in Prince William and elsewhere. Local government is supposed to be enforcing the rules and shares responsibility for protecting streams.  Let’s start with clear policy guidance in the Comprehensive Plan.

There are no immediate, direct fiscal impacts associated with adopting the updated Environment Chapter – but we all know that new EPA pollution caps for the Chesapeake Bay and new Virginia stormwater standards will require Prince William to pollute less, despite predicted population growth.  That won’t be easy or free – but EPA is not going to give Prince William the option of polluting more.

Supervisors face a clear choice when they vote on the Environment Chapter update. Will we shape our future through local decisions or abdicate responsibility for local land use, allow business-as-usual development and stand on the sidelines until EPA imposes penalties for noncompliance with the Clean Water Act?

Key Issues:

1)  Government should lead by example

Staff, supported by developers, proposes to delete all references to policies that encourage government projects to meet or exceed the County’s minimum development standards, including identification of environmental resources on County-owned properties.

This do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do approach sends the message that the County is not committed to protecting the environment.  The County should be a model of smart development, especially at parks and public buildings such as schools.

2)  Protect Intermittent Streams

The low-cost option to meeting Clean Water Act standards is to minimize additional stream pollution, when we develop parcels of land.  We need to keep nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment out of small intermittent streams as well as the large perennial streams.

Buffers – natural vegetation along stream edges – are a cost-effective way to stop pollution before it reaches the water, cheaper than perpetually maintaining stormwater ponds. Common sense tells you that it is less expensive to prevent a problem than to fix it later.

Currently the Environment Chapter calls for buffers on “intermittent” streams. In order to spur implementation, the Planning Commission draft calls for buffers on  significant intermittent streams, those that almost qualify as “perennial”  after a field evaluation.

Staff is proposing buffers – but only for a few intermittent streams that are near steep slopes. Developers suggest Prince William do nothing, because state/Federal agencies will solve our problems with future regulations.

As the county’s population grows, do you prefer preventing pollution by saving trees along streams or by paying higher taxes so Public Works can rebuild the stormwater ponds?

3)  Drinking Water Reservoir Protection Overlay District

Stormwater that flows into Lake Manassas or Occoquan Reservoir becomes our drinking water.  We ought to keep our future drinking water clean, and an “overlay district” creates that opportunity.  Within the overlay district, additional protective buffers and other controls can minimize impacts on water quality.

Staff proposes to delete references to implementation of the overlay district, including consideration of development densities and buffers for streams and wetlands. These key opportunities to protect our public drinking water should not be eliminated before the discussion has even begun.

4)  Limit clearing and grading

Clearing land increases erosion, sending topsoil into creeks and leaving unfertile soils behind. Erosion controls are only about 60% effective, even when they’re installed correctly, and clearly can’t do the job alone.

Grading reshapes the land, compacting soils to the extent they create nearly as much stormwater runoff as pavement.

We should protect trees and encourage development plans that fit the landscape,  rather than clear the forest and reshape the landscape to fit the plan.

Staff proposes changes that limit clearing and grading, but only for cluster development.  This narrow approach would allow developers to clear  all the way to the property border on all other development sites.

5)  Stormwater

As Prince William grows, we are increasing the amount of stormwater pollution that we send to the Chesapeake Bay.  The draft Environment Chaper considers stormwater conditions for the surrounding area, not just the parcel proposed for development.

The draft calls for specific changes to the Design Construction & Standards Manual (DCSM) at a later date.  We need to set the policy now, and tackle the details later.

The rules are made by the people who show up. Developers voted early and often. Click here to share your views with the Board of Supervisors today.

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