An unusual analysis of local codes and ordinances found that most counties and communities in the James River watershed are not doing enough to manage stormwater to protect water quality.
The James River Association and the Center for Watershed Protection worked with three universities to assess whether 45 cities and counties in the James River watershed had adopted local codes and ordinances to encourage the development of design techniques that reduce the impacts of stormwater on the river.
The analysis was the first of its kind undertaken anywhere in the nation, according to JRA Executive Director Bill Street, who said stormwater runoff from new development is the most urgent challenge facing the James.
Despite the threat, rules governing development in the James River watershed are not encapsulated in a single law or regulation but are instead woven into myriad local ordinances, subdivision codes, parking requirements, building standards, stormwater management rules, flood plain regulations and landscape limitations.
Using model development principles created by the Center for Watershed Protection—which set criteria for lot development, streets and parking lots and the preservation of natural areas—the group worked with the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech to rank each county and community in the 10,000-square-mile watershed on a scale from 1 to 100. Because the counties and communities are facing very different stages of development, the JRA also divided the 45 localities into five groups for comparison purposes.
By ranking and comparing the efforts of different counties and communities, the JRA “hoped to assess the degree to which local codes protect water quality while accommodating future growth,” Street said. “We also wanted to increase awareness and understanding of better site design techniques and start a conversation about the consequences of poorly planned growth.”
No community received a score greater than 74, and most communities received a score below 60—a failing grade. The only counties or communities that received passing grades were Hanover, Isle of Wight, Albermarle, New Kent, James City, Chesterfield, Norfolk, Richmond, Henrico, and Hampton.
The JRA was particularly concerned that all but one of the “rapidly urbanizing” counties and communities in the watershed had failed to adopt ordinances and codes that properly anticipate and address the stormwater impacts of new development. Powhatan, Prince George, Fluvanna, Suffolk, Goochland and James City “are at a critical stage of development,” Street said. “They have a history of low development pressure and typically do not have codes in place to curb pollution from getting to local rivers and creeks.”
“There is only one opportunity to minimize the impacts of development,” Street added. “Once it is developed, it is very difficult and very expensive to correct the water quality problems at a given site, so it’s imperative that development be implemented as well as possible.”
Although the James River faces a variety of threats—including farmland runoff and discharges from wastewater plants—the “fastest growing source of pollution” is the stormwater from poorly planned development, Street said. In particular, stormwater pollution during and after construction can significantly increase bank erosion and the amount of sediment dumped into creeks and the James, burying habitat.
Some communities around the country have adopted “Low Impact Design” techniques that reduce the impact of development on rivers, including practices that limit hard surfaces; protect riverside forests and other natural areas; cluster development; and direct stormwater to places where water can infiltrate the ground. Prince George’s County in Maryland pioneered LID principles and Montgomery County in Maryland may soon establish numeric limits for stormwater from individual sites.
Regardless of any other requirements, failing to incorporate LID principles into local codes and ordinances makes its harder for innovative developers to get their projects through the planning pipeline.
“If local officials aren’t familiar with better site design techniques and their codes and ordinances are not updated to consider these new techniques, it’s much more difficult for developers to build projects that limit the impacts of development,” Street said.
“Some developers who want to incorporate low impact practices find that lack of clarity and outdated codes and standards can delay the approval of good projects. That just encourages developers to use traditional approaches, which contribute to water quality problems but are familiar and can be approved quickly.”
The JRA also called on state officials to incorporate low impact design principles into state transportation planning and to ensure that tidewater communities adopt LID principles to meet the requirement of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act.
“This assessment of codes and ordinances should serve a model for every watershed in the Chesapeake Region and the nation,” said David Hirschman, a watershed management expert for the Center for Watershed Protection.
The watershed group used the analysis of county codes and a separate study that looked at major sources of sediment to the James to single out one stream for restoration. As a result, hundreds of volunteers will spend the week of April 16 restoring a tributary to the James in Appomattox County by planting trees, collecting trash, retrofitting storm water projects and taking other steps to repair the degraded stream.
Street said the “extreme stream makeover” for Oldtown Creek is modeled after the home renovation show “Extreme Makeover,” but conceded that “it may take more than week to renovate rivers like Oldtown Creek.”
To volunteer for the “extreme stream makeover” or to read “Building a Cleaner James River: Improving Local Building Codes and Ordinances to Protect the James River and its Tributaries,” visit www.jamesriverassociation.org.