WINCHESTER - The Town of Winchester is no stranger to increasing taxes or paying fees for important needs or projects. In the past decade, residents supported overrides for the high school project, culvert work, the general budget, and a new Vinson-Owen Elementary School. Therefore, when Town Meeting last night voted against a stormwater fee, it came as a surprise to some in the room.
Every community in Massachusetts must deal with stormwater. Some communities have fees, some use money from the general budget and some find other ways to pay for needed stormwater improvements (such as capital funds). Winchester’s Select Board, Town Manager and Engineering Department held various meetings and eventually settled on a fee structure that broke down payments into tiers - the more impervious surface (any surface that doesn’t collect rainwater) a resident has, the more that resident would pay (and vice-versa).
The town could have voted on a flat fee or charged residents based on the size of their property. Instead, members of the Select Board, at the recommendation of Town Engineer Beth Rudolph, supported a tiered-structure based on impervious area. They felt it was the most fair system: residents who contribute the most stormwater should pay the most.
Unfortunately, at least for town officials, Town Meeting disagreed. Tony Conte, a Town Meeting member for many years, outlined several problems. First, he said the Select Board shouldn’t set the fees (the bylaw allows for that), Town Meeting should. Second, he felt the bylaw was an invasion of Prop 2 and 1/2 (he called it a tax and not a fee). Third, he noted how the bulk of impervious surface in Winchester is actually owned by the town, yet its exempt from paying. Finally, he said there wasn’t any criteria for the appeal process.
“Let’s send it back for reconsideration,” he asked his fellow Town Meeting members.
Town Meeting member John Miller said he had no problem with the need to fund a replacement to the stormwater system, but disagreed with the tiered structure. He said it doesn’t make logical sense. He envisioned three rates: residences, bulk residences and commercial.
Miller added how not all stormwater runs off impervious surfaces into the street. He noted how his porch produces stormwater runoff, but that runoff goes into his yard.
“A flat fee makes sense,” he argued.
Some Town Meeting members did support the bylaw including John Kilborn who suggested the fee could incentivize residents to think about stormwater and ways to reduce it. He said the article would help keep waterbodies clear.
Town Meeting member Diab Jerius, a former chair of the Planning Board, felt the tiered system has value, but added that bits of the article could be reworked to further incentivize reducing stormwater.
“We need to try to decrease the amount of stormwater,” he remarked.
Former Chair of the Select Board and current Town Meeting member Lance Grenzeback strongly argued how the town needs this bylaw. He pushed that residents were already paying for stormwater through their water & sewer bills, but they should want to separate that cost out because it’s a different animal.
“Stormwater will be the biggest problem in 15-20 years,” he argued, adding that it doesn’t matter if the town uses a flat fee or a tiered structure. “I strongly recommend favorable action.”
Of course, the no’s had it. Another Town Meeting member who voted against the article, Jack Richard, said tax bills should be for revenue generation. He disapproved of the tiered structure, as well. He also had an issue with the last section of the article which said that if one part of the bylaw isn’t enforceable, the rest could still be. He felt if one part wasn’t enforceable, the whole bylaw should be thrown out.
Finally, Town Meeting member Roger Wilson wanted to see the town incentivize reducing stormwater through a tax credit.
After the meeting wrapped for the night, both Select Board Chair Mariano Goluboff and Town Manager Lisa Wong expressed surprise the article failed. Goluboff said the town has two options to deal with stormwater, either increase the water & sewer rates (which Town Meeting will consider in Article 23) or add this new bylaw.
About the idea of using a flat fee, the chairman felt it was tough to ask people to pay the same fee when one person contributes more stormwater than the other. Wong then added that with a tiered system the town could still do a flat fee.
“At some point there won’t be any reserves left in the Water & Sewer Enterprise Fund and Town Meeting will have to make a decision,” Goluboff acknowledged.
Article 8 asks Town Meeting to add a new Chapter 25 to the Code of By-Laws of the Town of Winchester. It states the purpose, applicability, exemptions, effective date, use of stormwater fees, administration, challenges to stormwater fee charges, and severability.
According to the article, the purpose of the bylaw is to “promote the health and safety of the public, protect property from flooding and damage caused by stormwater runoff and protect and manage water quality by controlling the level of pollutants in stormwater runoff and the flow of water as conveyed by manmade and natural stormwater management systems and facilities.”
The fee will be paid by the landowner unless said landowner is exempt. The exemptions are: town-owned parcels or other department-owned parcels (including potential government-owned parcels) and undeveloped land that doesn’t include any impervious surface other than unpaved access roads and trails.
Money collected from stormwater fees will be used for engineering and design, debt service and related financing expenses, construction costs for new stormwater infrastructure facilities (including costs for contracted services) and enlargement or improvement of existing stormwater infrastructure facilities; capital investments; operation and maintenance of MS4, including catch basin cleaning, ditch maintenance, street sweeping, pipe repairs, and stormwater facility repairs; costs of administration and implementation of the town’s stormwater management program; water quality monitoring and water quality programs; detection and elimination of illicit discharges; inspection and enforcement activities; acquisition by gift, purchase or condemnation of real and personal property necessary to construct, operate and maintain stormwater management systems and facilities; and other activities necessary to the implementation of MS4.
The bylaw will be administered by the Select Board, and fee invoices will be included and separately itemized on quarterly invoices sent to landowners. The town may impose late fees as administered by the board. Payment will be received by the Town Treasurer who will notify the board of fees collected.
Landowners may challenge fees by demonstrating the amount owed should be reduce to a lower tier. Owners may qualify for a fee reduction if:
• the owner demonstrates that it has been incorrectly identified as an owner of a parcel
• the owner can demonstrate the parcel is exempt or the impervious area is smaller than measured on the invoice
• the owner has installed or operates stormwater measures or infrastructure at the parcel, in addition to that required by any town bylaw or regulation, that reduce stormwater impacts from that parcel to the level of impacts equivalent to a lower stormwater fee tier
• the owner has installed or permitted to be installed stormwater measures or infrastructure that reduce stormwater impacts from another parcel
The bylaw also states that no parcel can drop below the lowest tier unless that parcel is exempt. In that event, no fee would be charged.