JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — On a stormy day, rain coats the pavement like a second layer. On the sides of roads and in backyards, ditches become like streams.
In some areas, water rushes to the nearest storm drain; in others it stills, forming deeper and deeper puddles as the rain continues to fall.
We care about stormwater when we step in a puddle or when we’re worried about our car hydroplaning, but when the sun is shining, it usually isn’t on our minds.
That is unless you have attended a Johns Creek City Council meeting in the last year, where stormwater has become a regular topic of conversation.
A year of heavy rainfall, following a decade of rapid development, has exacerbated stormwater-related problems in the city.
When rain lands in a natural environment, it can percolate into the ground or gradually make its way to a large body of water.
But, when rain hits impervious surface, like roadways or roofs, the runoff travels at faster speeds, causing erosion and sometimes flooding, and mixes with toxins and litter, polluting rivers and lakes.
Stormwater infrastructure like catch basins, gutters, pipes, ditches and detention ponds can help control the impact of stormwater. But in Johns Creek, roughly 80 percent of the city’s stormwater management systems were built prior to implementation of today’s best management practices.
While commercial and residential development has rapidly increased the amount of impervious surface in the city, improvements to stormwater infrastructure has not kept pace.
“We are about 93 percent built out, and we built out over a very short period of about two and a half decades,” then Community Development Director Sharron Ebert said during an October work session.
“Along Medlock Bridge Road, there is a very high concentration of [impervious surface] because that’s where we have most of our commercial properties, both in shopping centers and office complexes,” Ebert said. “Our parking lots in particular for those two types of development are what is impacting to the most degree our Johns Creek watershed.”
Some residents of Johns Creek, especially along the Medlock Bridge corridor, are seeing the impact of this in their backyards.
Trees have fallen down because the soil around the roots has washed away. Ditches have deepened and widened. Yards flood during a heavy rain.
“I don’t think the city really cares or realizes that it’s their overall development policy and the fact that we don’t have any mitigation to keep stormwater from just rushing into the streams that has caused this,” said Larry Fitch, a 20-year resident of Medlock Bridge subdivision. “Because it certainly didn’t do it before there was development, even when there were heavy downfalls.”
Neighborhood homeowners’ associations also have to contend with the costs of maintaining their stormwater infrastructure. Medlock Bridge’s HOA, for example, is spending around $500,000 this year to remove silt from its detention pond.
This can especially present a challenge for neighborhoods where the HOA is managed by volunteers, as Creekside Crossing HOA President Grady Barnhill told the City Council during the public comment section of an April council meeting.
“When the stormwater comes surging through our streams, and goes flowing outside banks, when it’s disintegrating various devices and causing trees to fall over, that stormwater is not very much aware of whether it’s on city-owned property or private property,” Barnhill said.
“Year of Stormwater”
Recognizing the growing public concern surrounding stormwater, the council adopted a 2019 budget that made stormwater a priority, a move Mayor Mike Bodker deemed the “Year of Stormwater.”
This commitment included adding a new position to city staff specifically to oversee stormwater, funding an assessment of the entire stormwater system and adding funds to the infrastructure maintenance accrual fund to begin repairs.
“Rather than just doing the cursory minimum, council decided that they wanted to have a real understanding of the condition and the maintenance needs of the stormwater system,” Interim Community Development Director Kimberly Greer said.
Ebert announced her retirement from the city in March. Assistant City Manager Greer is now overseeing the department, which is responsible for land development and stormwater management, until a permanent replacement is found.
The minimum level of inspection required by law, and the approach the city has historically used, is to inspect the parts of the structures and conveyances that can be seen from above ground, Greer said.
All of the public infrastructure must be inspected once every five years, as well as some privately owned stormwater infrastructure that has an easement with a city. That’s a small percentage of the overall stormwater system.
The assessment funded with the 2019 budget uses crawler cameras to get inside the pipe and inspect the entire system from the inside.
“We’re going to find more because you’re literally crawling through pipes now,” Greer said. “You’re getting into the nitty gritty, under the ground, the stuff we can’t see that may not have always been top of mind but is now.”
Contractors have already completed assessment of one of the six stormwater basin zones. The six zones are Caney Creek, Cauley Creek, Crooked Creek, Johns Creek, Level Creek and Long Indian Creek.
Long Indian Creek, the western side of the city, was the first to be assessed because of the relative age of its infrastructure.
Out of around 1,200 pieces of city-owned stormwater infrastructure, two structures and two conveyances were deemed heavily damaged. On private property, 10 structures and five conveyances were deemed heavily damaged.
In April, the City Council committed $650,000 to repairing the most damaged city-owned structures and clearing the areas with the most siltation. The council members voted to spend the money now rather than waiting to complete the system-wide inspection, calling it an act of “triage.”
“This will be the first-time major expenditures are spent on repair, so clearly there’s some catch up,” Bodker said.
In the long-term, the city wants to take a more proactive approach to maintain stormwater infrastructure, to develop a program similar to how it approaches neighborhood repaving.
With repaving, the city hired a consultant to analyze and score all the roads in Johns Creek based on cracking, potholes and weathering. The roads were ranked by need, and repaving was scheduled over a four year cycle.
“Longer term, I want to get to every year we vacuum out a certain percentage of our pipes in a systematic way, so that we don’t get to the fully clogged pipe,” Greer said. “But that’s a process that needs to be informed with data, which makes that system assessment the vital first step.”
Extent of service
Tied into conversations surrounding stormwater is a debate over extent of service. Johns Creek’s current policy, which has been in place since 2007, is that the city is only responsible for stormwater infrastructure in the public right of way or on other public property, like parks.
The city does have the right to access some of the privately owned storm water facilities for inspection and enforcement, but maintenance is the responsibility of the property owner.
Historically, Johns Creeks enforcement of stormwater ordinances on private property has been largely reactive, Greer said. The city responds when citizens call in a complaint, or if public works or community development workers notice an issue.
Of the 16,000 stormwater structures in the city, about 5,850 are city-owned. Even if the city could repair all its stormwater overnight, it would only be a fraction of the maintenance needed.
Some residents are calling on the council to do more to help neighborhood HOAs and private property owners maintain their detention ponds, but that presents legal and financial challenges.
Proponents of expanding the service argue that the entire system is connected. Stormwater runoff doesn’t stop when it reaches a property line, something the city has acknowledged.
“It is one system,” Greer said at a recent council meeting. “The public parts impact the private parts and vice versa … If there is a blockage right before us, it impacts us. If the blockage is us, it is impacting what is downstream. The two play together.”
However, if the city were to step in now and subsidize an HOA cleaning a detention pond, it would present a legal liability under the gratuities clause of the Georgia Constitution, according to environmental attorney Darren Meadows.
Meadows was an attorney for the state Environmental Protection Division and worked with Columbia and McDuffie counties to develop their stormwater policy and address other environmental compliance matters.
The gratuities clause states that “the General Assembly shall not have the power to grant any donation or gratuity.” Through legal precedence, this has been interpreted to include any municipality or county in Georgia giving any sort of gift where there is no substantial benefit to the public.
“Is the primary benefit to relieve the burden on that private enterprise, that private community, that private area or is it a benefit to the city as a whole?” Meadows said. “By and large, most of the ones that I encounter it’s ‘Please save us, the private land owners, from our own lack of budgeting and lack of maintenance.’”
“The taxes are being used to maintain the city system or the county system,” Meadows continued. “To use the tax money to maintain what’s within that private property is what brings up that gratuities question.”
Meadows said if a detention pond or other stormwater infrastructure was poorly maintained to the point it was flooding a road or park, that could be overwhelming enough public interest for the city to step in, but even then, the city should seek compensation after the emergency has been addressed.
“If you want the city to be involved in resolving this issue then … pulling [the money] from current budgetary resources certainly raises the gratuities issue, because you have to be redirecting funds that would be going to some other presumably public benefit, ie. building another park, improving roads,” Meadows said.
For the city-owned infrastructure in Long Indian Creek basin alone, the cost to repair the mostly heavily damaged infrastructure and clear the conveyances with the most siltation is estimated to be $650,000.
The price only includes one of the city’s six basin zones and does not begin to address infrastructure with medium levels of damage.
Though city staff will not make official estimates until additional basin zones have been studied, the city is likely looking at a six- or even seven-digit number to repair all the damaged city-owned infrastructure.
Before the city considers expanding its extent of service, it must understand how to pay for repairs and maintenance.
City staff floated three ideas of what that might look like in a work session last October. The city could continue to fund repairs the way it has in the past, through the annual budget process.
It could issue general obligation bond, like it has for parks and traffic improvements. This approach is usually taken when a municipality needs to make major capital improvements in a relatively short amount of time. A bond would allow the city to expedite major repairs and pay them off over time.
The third option would be to create a stormwater utility fee, also known as a “rain tax,” a new tax that would generate revenue specifically for stormwater infrastructure maintenance. Property owners would be charged based on the type of property (commercial or residential), area covered by impervious surface and whether they implement certain stormwater management practices.
Roswell, Duluth and Norcross have some version of a stormwater utility fee.
“The rain tax is the direction that most local governments seem to be going,” Meadows said. “Their tax money coming in, they’ve got plenty of things to spend it on, whether it’s road improvements or other types of infrastructure.”