When Virginia completed a strategy to guide the cleanup of the Rappahannock River a few years ago, John Tippett saw a grim message in it.
Unless something was done to control runoff from his fast-growing area of Virginia’s Piedmont, the Rappahannock would have little hope of ever achieving its cleanup goals.
Growth in and around Fredericksburg — located on the Interstate 95 corridor on the outer cusp of the Washington, D.C. area — was likely going to offset cleanup efforts undertaken by others.
“We’ve got some of the fastest growing counties in the state — and rapidly increasing stormwater impacts to the Rappahannock,” said Tippett, executive director of the watershed group, Friends of the Rappahannock.
Tippett had already been through years of frustration in trying to change development and reduce its impact.
“Flying experts” would come in from out-of-town, give a workshop — and nothing would change. Environmental think tanks would tout new development ideas — and land use patterns would stay the same. State and federal agencies would offer guidance for new stormwater management techniques — but the same old stormwater ponds continued to pockmark the landscape around new developments.
Tippett finally coined a new term: the “guidance/implementation gap.” It described the chasm between good ideas and on-the-ground results. At last, Tippett hit upon a new idea to bring change — one that helped to serve as a model for the new Builders for the Bay program which seeks to usher in a new way of doing development around the Chesapeake.
With support from the Bay Program, Tippett teamed up with the Center for Watershed Protection to launch a consensus process that brought together local government officials, state agency officials, builders, site designers, bankers, fire chiefs, transportation agency officials and others.
For 10 months, a group of 35 people met, at first together, then in smaller groups focused on particular issues. The focal point for the roundtables were 22 principles of Better Site Design developed by the Center for Watershed Protection.
Those design techniques seek to reduce the impact of development by promoting such things as cluster development, narrower roads and improved stormwater management techniques.
But such techniques are often hampered, not so much by developers, but by government ordinances and codes. They often prescribe the size of cul-de-sacs, the width of roads — even the amount of parking spaces.
Builders were often reluctant to submit plans for innovative projects because they almost always meant a longer-than-normal review process, which often led to uncertain results. “We found, by in large, they were willing to do a lot of these things because they made sense,” Tippett said. “The problem was, the roadblocks existed in the local governments.”
But, Tippett noted, changing codes can be risky for local governments. What happens if, instead of a stormwater pond, they allow rain gardens in a new subdivision, but they are installed incorrectly? “If they fail, the officials could be on the front page of the paper with 100 land owners who have ponds in their front yards,” he said. “Thankfully, increasing numbers of demonstration projects in the area are helping local program managers become more comfortable with the new approaches and technologies.”
Local planners may know about emerging techniques, but rarely have time to review enough technical information to feel comfortable approving roadside swales and other stormwater bioretention techniques instead of tried-and-true stormwater ponds.
ûuring the process, experts from the Center for Watershed Protection were able to explain those techniques. They were also able to analyze existing regulations of each of three local jurisdictions — the city of Fredericksburg and the counties of Spotsylvania and Stafford. The examined their strengths and weaknesses, and where ordinances allowed — or were roadblocks to — innovative techniques.
After nearly a year of meetings, the group last February reached consensus on adopting the 22 principles as a goal for the region, and made specific recommendations about how regulations could be changed so the principles could be put to work.
And workshop participants believe change will happen. Instead of workshops that come and go, and concepts from afar, the consensus created local advocates who could take “ownership” of the issues within their communities and work for change.
“It gives us a ready, set handbook to educate the planning commission, the board of supervisors and the public on these issues,” said Ray Utz, senior planner with the Spotsylvania County Office of Planning, who participated in the roundtable. “So it’s not solely a staff recommendation or a citizen recommendation. It is the recommendation of a recognized group, which is important.”
Spotsylvania County is in the process of updating its comprehensive plan, and Utz said the timing of the roundtable allowed some new ideas to be included in the plan. He expects more changes when, after the plan is adopted, the county updates its ordinances.
He cautioned that not every recommended change would become a reality. While the principles recommended reducing sidewalks, the county recently changed ordinances to require sidewalks in most new developments to promote walking.
“From an impervious surface perspective, that reduces water quality and requires a greater amount of stormwater management,” Utz said, “but from a quality of life perspective, it is really important to be able to walk down the sidewalk to your neighbor’s house.”
Tippett noted that the goal of principles such as reducing sidewalks on both sides of the street can actually be more compatible with quality of life issues. “I’d rather my children play on a trail that weaves through a community greenway than draw them toward a dangerous street, as conventional sidewalk designs do. Right now, our local codes don’t even give developers that as an option — they would have to do both.”
Stafford County has been moving forward as well. But Tippett acknowledged that change can be slow — he estimated it would take five to eight years before most of the recommended practices became adopted and broadly used.
“We’re certainly not there yet,” agreed roundtable participant Zeke Moore, a stormwater engineer with Sullivan, Donohoe & Ingalls, a site design firm. “We’ve gotten consensus and there is a document out showing a model, but it is still kind of a theory and developing along.”
Moore called the roundtables “a step in the right direction” but said their success hinges in implementation.
What’s needed, he said, is not just permission to use alternative designs, but encouragement to use them. For example, he said he could design alternative stormwater practices that promote infiltration rather than runoff. But unless builders get credit for using those devices — reflected in permission to build smaller stormwater ponds — there is little incentive to change.
“These are great ideas, but they cost money,” Moore said. “If we can get some credit for that and save some money on the stormwater pond, all of a sudden it might become feasible to do.”
Tippett agreed that such incentives need to be institutionalized, and that progress often may seem slow. “Sometimes it doesn’t go near as fast as I’d like it to,” he said. But now, at least, things are moving. “Before, most of these ideas would die on the vine after we got a flying expert to come in and do a workshop.”
A sure sign of success, Tippett said, is that several home builders in the area started a new business to produce the soil media for bioretention practices, which hold runoff on site rather sending it into a stormwater system. “I knew it was taking off when that happened,” he said.