Storm brewing over Atlanta’s draft flood-control rules
By Maggie Lee
(This story has been updated with late-arriving comment from Atlanta’s watershed department)
As metro Atlanta cleaned up from September’s Hurricane Sally, a deluge of sorts also flowed into Atlanta City Hall. Calls mainly from Mechanicsville, Summerhill and Pittsburgh came in from residents worried that the city’s new stormwater ordinance won’t provide as much flood protection as it could.
Atlanta’s low spots suffer when heavy rains cascade off roofs, roads and parking lots and hit overwhelmed channels or blocked drains.
The city’s current rules on development and controlling water are enough steps ahead of its neighbors that the city is a model for the region. Things are indeed better than they were a decade ago.
But a proposed update has set off a big developers’ group as well as an emerging intown environmental group.
Big rain events are going to get more frequent, so the city’s got to put forward-thinking measures into place, said Jason Dozier, a onetime Atlanta City Council candidate and now a co-founder of a nonprofit so new it hasn’t even had an official kickoff event yet: The Intrenchment Creek Community Stewardship Council.
“That means showing that developers are are playing their part, and detaining stormwater runoff,” Dozier said. “Then make sure that zoning and land use is centered around reducing flooding and reducing the impact of big stormwater events.”
City rules dating from 2013 have pushed developers toward building “green infrastructure:” green spaces with hills or ponds or even underground vaults that capture rain and turn a few hours’ deluge into a slower, smaller, cleaner flow of water toward rivers over many hours or days.
Earlier this year, the city published a summary of its work on updates to the rules.
That summary proposed a rule for developments that can’t do vegetated green infrastructure or rainwater collection for some reason (like, say, unsuitable soil.) Those developments would have to find other ways to hold more rain for longer than they do now. In practice, “extended detention” might mean something like building bigger underground vaults to hold rain.
This summer, the Chattahochee Riverkeeper endorsed the city’s whole proposed stormwater update package for helping to resolve “social, environmental and economic problems associated with post-construction stormwater runoff.” A letter from the environmental nonprofit to City Council members especially praised that new “extended detention” rule.
But another letter soon arrived at Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management from the Council for Quality Growth, a nonprofit trade association with more than 300 members from the development industry.
That letter asked for more clarity around some of the draft and suggested other changes, like exemptions to the “extended detention” rules.
Their July letter said that the new rules would “significantly inhibit” developers’ ability to develop or re-develop land in the city and would stifle Atlanta’s affordable housing goals.
Fast forward to October, when a new draft of the ordinance appeared a few days before a public work session on it. The city’s watershed department had red lines crossing out the new, tougher extended detention rules.
Plenty of folks had seen that new draft with its red lines and filled up the Atlanta City Council Utilities Committee’s inbox with about 40 minutes of voicemails before the work session — nearly all asking to keep those proposed stormwater protections.
The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper was unhappy with the new draft’s red lines too.
“You look all across the city, you see the cranes everywhere … and we’re getting a lot more stormwater runoff from these developments,” said Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth. “These developments need to be doing everything they possibly can to manage their storm water responsibly and not flood adjacent properties.”
His organization also sent a follow-up letter to the city criticizing the October draft.
Neither watershed nor the office of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms responded to a request for comment on the administration’s intent with the draft in time for publication of this story. However, a watershed spokesman later sent an email that read in part, “The Department of Watershed Management has worked with all stakeholders throughout the development of updates to this ordinance. We will continue to conduct additional analyses and research based on public comment to determine if additional changes are needed to the proposed ordinance.”
After that early October meeting, the Council for Quality Growth and several other industry groups sent another letter to Watershed. The letter asked that stormwater ordinance revisions stick mainly to small changes required by law and table other things for further stakeholder review.
“[I]mposing strident green infrastructure development controls for storm water drainage water quality in many locations will not independently solve localized flooding issues and sewer overflows from the city’s combined sewer system, and should be considered in tandem with plans, studies and projects such as those under the federal consent decree that requires certain improvement projects in the Peoplestown, Summerhill, Mechanicsville neighborhoods, the Intrenchment Creek area, and throughout the City of Atlanta,” reads part of the letter.
In response to a request for comment, CQG President and CEO Michael Paris sent a written statement.
He encourages the city to approve minor changes, “and spend the coming months further evaluating any additional requirements and looking at all practical options.”
The CQG wants to work with the city, the statement says, “on long-term solutions to eliminate localized flooding issues and invest in the city’s aging infrastructure while not infringing on much-needed housing at all levels and related development.”
Dozier isn’t having the housing-cost argument.
Spending money on the front end saves money on insurance and the costs of dealing with flooding later, he said. And those later costs don’t necessarily fall to the developer.
“If somebody’s been displaced because of poor management of stormwater, having to hire movers, having to find a new place to live, having to get their life together, that’s going to be an expense that people have to have come out of pocket as well,” Dozier said.
The City Utilities Committee’s next scheduled meeting is Nov. 10, but an agenda has yet to be announced.
The city is publishing documents and updates on the ordinance on its Stormwater Ordinance page.