Sunday, January 11, 2009

Benton County discusses adopting 20th-century stormwater rules in 21st

The Morning News

Local News for Northwest Arkansas

Officials Writing Countywide Stormwater Ordinance

By Scarlet Sims
BENTONVILLE -- Benton County needs more regulation to control sediment runoff and water pollution from construction sites, Environmental Director Jim Ecker said.

"As you get more population, you have to start enforcing things that weren't enforced before," Ecker said. "It's all about the environment."

Ecker and Senior Planner Ronette Bachert are drafting an ordinance to control stormwater countywide. No details are available yet, Bachert said. The ordinance will go before the Quorum Court this year, but Bachert and Ecker couldn't say exactly when.

The ordinance is meant, in part, to meet federal regulations required for about 3 square miles of the most densely populated unincorporated areas in Benton County, including Monte Ne and Prairie Creek. Federal stormwater regulations already affect all construction sites disturbing 1 acre or more, and those that are smaller and part of a larger development. The stormwater measures usually affect builders, said Diana McDonald, Environmental Protection Agency stormwater enforcement officer.

Developers in the federally designated area must comply with the county's stormwater plan and get a state stormwater permit, according to a 2007 letter to former County Judge Gary Black from Jeff Hawkins, Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission director.

"They would have to comply with the state requirements and the jurisdiction requirements," Hawkins said. "They may have to get state and local permits."

The county enforces federal stormwater regulations inside the federally designated area, but the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality investigates stormwater violations in the rest of the county, Hawkins said. If the county adopts the ordinance Ecker proposes, county environmental officers or building inspectors would enforce federal stormwater regulations countywide, Ecker said.

The federal agency does not require the county to adopt an ordinance, only some kind of "enforcement mechanism," McDonald said. The county is supposed to adopt an ordinance, resolution or executive order by Feb. 1 to be compliant with federal law, state and federal officials said.

Planning Director Ashley Pope said she doubts any ordinance will be adopted by that deadline. The county also may not be submitting required annual reviews, said Mo Shafii, state environmental agency water division assistant chief. He didn't want to say absolutely that Benton County isn't submitting reviews because he said they might be misfiled.

The state issued Benton County permits to develop its stormwater plan in 2004, according to state records. Part of that permit says the county must update the state agency annually on the progress of developing the plan, federal and state officials said. Shafii said the agency apparently has received no updates from Benton County since 2006.

Not sending yearly updates and missing the state deadline makes the county noncompliant, Shafii said.

"For me, it is a big deal," Shafii said.

Black signed the state permit to be responsible for the county plan, but he also assigned responsibility to Ecker, Shafii said.

Benton County has implemented most of its plan, Ecker said, but he couldn't provide specifics about what has and hasn't been done.

Benton County appears to be dragging its feet, said Everett Spencer, federal stormwater enforcement officer for the region that includes Arkansas. The state environmental agency could take action against the county, McDonald said.

However, the state likely won't fine the county immediately. The state wants to work with the county to bring it into compliance, Shafii said. The state decides fines or extensions on a case by case basis, he said.

The federal agency is also unlikely to audit Benton County, Spencer said. No federal audits are planned for small jurisdictions, like Benton County, agency officials said. The federal agency relies on states for enforcement, Spencer said.

Large cities, which have regulated their stormwater for about 10 years, are being fined for not complying, but small governments are likely to get a break, McDonald said.

"This is a big program, and it was really daunting, especially for some of these little, bitty places," McDonald said. "Daunting to the point that some of them did wait until the last minute. It was like they were clueless."

Ecker said having the right ordinance is more important than meeting the state deadline. An ordinance also gives the Quorum Court a say, he said.

"The deadline is not the driving factor," Ecker said.

At A Glance
Stormwater Plan

Washington County is compliant with federal regulations for stormwater because the county judge adopted a court order implementing the county's stormwater plan in 2006, said Robyn Reed, county environmental affairs director. The county has about 6 square miles of federally designated area to enforce stormwater controls.

Source: Washington County Environmental Affairs Director Robyn Reed, Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission

Fast Facts

Help Meeting Federal Requirements

About 14 cities in Benton and Washington counties, including unincorporated areas in the counties, must enforce federal stormwater regulations to limit sediment pollution from construction sites. The cities and counties joined together to create a Regional Storm Water Education Program to jointly meet some federal guidelines for public outreach and education.

Source: Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission

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