Rain meets loose dirt. It isn’t a new problem. It is a problem, county leaders say, in need of a new solution.
“There’s a trend happening here and we need to take an opportunity to fix it,” said York County Councilwoman Christi Cox.
Council held a discussion Monday night on sediment runoff – the result of rain washing out construction sites and silt building up on neighboring properties or in waterways. Cox referenced two recent issues she had with land developers in asking for a focus on the issue at an upcoming growth workshop.
“The developer didn’t follow the plan,” she said. “And it ended up causing a significant disruption and a problem with the runoff and sediment in the area.”
Grading and engineering plans were approved. They addressed sediment. Yet some developers, she said, aren’t always sticking to those approved plans, which can include setting up areas with silt-catching fencing at building sites to keep runoff contained.
“They make a calculated decision not to do that because the penalty for (runoff violations) is only $500,” Cox said. “But then the damage has been done.”
Sediment concerns have come up previously. Most often from the Dist. 2 seat representing Lake Wylie, where runoff can fill in coves creating environmental problems and threaten property values. That Councilwoman Allison Love, who represents Dist. 2, was the last of several Council members on Monday to address the issue was telling in how widespread concerns are now.
“It’s not a new problem,” said Councilman Chad Williams, who like Cox represents part of the fast-growing Fort Mill area.
“It’s happened before, and now that the economy is working again it’s become more prevalent. But it was a thing that we heard over and over again.”
Councilman William “Bump” Roddey said even in his district, which includes more rural areas in western York County, has had problems. Roddey questioned whether the county has a regulation issue or an enforcement one, but agrees there is an issue.
“We’ve talked about similar issues over in Fort Mill, and we’ve talked about similar issues in Lake Wylie,” he said. “I’ve even sent pictures to staff (from my district).”
Love said development issues near Lake Wylie, like runoff problems, are “the reason I’m sitting here” after prompting her run for office last fall. She said the county is a “laughingstock” in the development community for how little is done keeping control of runoff issues.
“They think we’re a joke, because we don’t make them toe the line,” Love said.
The county can fine developers. It can, and has, placed stop-work orders. The county can put holds on building permits to address problems. Audra Miller, planning director, said rules like the maximum fine are “pretty much defined by state law.” Should silt fences fail, they have to give developers five days to correct issues, which she understands can bother residents nearby.
“We have to give the developer or the grader a chance to correct it,” Miller said. “We don’t have the right, really, under the ordinance or the statute to just immediately fine someone.”
County Manager Bill Shanahan agreed there are processes in place “that really protect the developer from us enforcing rules.” He also agreed a review of current rules could help the county.
“We do have some regulations out there but they’re very long-winded,” he said. “There’s no real accountability.”
Which is the issue Cox is seeing. There is a difference, she said, in silt fences failing after some record rain and developers who are choosing not to follow their own plans.
“We don’t enforce it well enough that they care,” Cox said.
She proposes keeping a list of developers with compliance problems, and having developers foot the bill for additional county inspections when needed. She also wants something more than a small fine developers will gladly risk paying rather than address runoff.
“We need to put some teeth into it,” Cox said of county rules, “or we need to get rid of it.”
Williams said he is fine with the stop-work orders, but said more could be done once there are problems toward “some sort of true mitigation” to fix the issues. Love said along with rules and enforcement, the county also has “a definition problem.” Varying state and local rules on what constitutes runoff can be confusing, she said. But common sense needs to prevail.
“When you can see it going into the lake, and we know that our lake is more and more shallow as years go by, we have a problem,” Love said.
Though she didn’t bring the issue up herself this time, Love has in recent months. Issues persist as new development continues in Lake Wylie.
“I find myself out videotaping every time we have a rain, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a larger rain than normal or not,” Love said. “I’m out there videotaping because every rain is larger than normal, and the silt fences are down.”
Ellen Goff, board member with the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and longtime environmental advocate in Lake Wylie, called the recent conversation welcome news.
“We need leadership from the York County Council and the county manager on this most urgent threat to water quality and water quantity in Lake Wylie and throughout the Catawba River basin,” she said.
Stormwater runoff largely comes from construction sites, but can come from other sources, from cable and water installation to work on sewage lines. Goff said silt in coves is a problem as are nutrients, fertilizers and oils washed into waterways.
“This is a serious problem for fast-growing counties like ours and one that is being replicated in counties all across the country,” she said. “Polluting our source of drinking water is a one issue. But equally important is water storage loss in our lakes from sedimentation.”
Goff sites recent studies from the Catawba basin, conducted by groups of water users aimed at extended how long the river can support public water needs.
“Having enough water to support the current rate of growth is already being questioned,” she said. “This pernicious degradation of the environment has not yet been fully recognized.”