City passes new storm water ordinance after citizens’ input 

By Blenda Copeland

After hearing the local business community’s concerns about a new city ordinance and an Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) presentation, the Phenix City Council has approved a new city ordinance.

Chapter 10 1/2, titled Stormwater Management, was approved at the council’s meeting Tuesday and is set to be added to the city’s code of ordinances in order to comply with ADEM regulations relating to stormwater discharge. It should be available on the city’s Web site or by contacting the city’s Engineering Department or the city clerk’s office.

The much-discussed ordinance garnered attention not only from Gil Dyer, owner of Gil’s Auto Sales, who addressed the council at its work session Monday, and Mike Cannon, who leases a car wash in downtown Phenix City and addressed the council at the State of the City Address Jan. 19, but others as well, who have also expressed their concerns. Dr. David White of Troy University, who is a member the Phenix City-Russell County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, also listened about the proposed ordinance Monday, along with about 11 other citizens.

During the council’s Feb. 6 work session, Marla S. Smith of ADEM’s Stormwater Management Branch, Water Division, explained to the council what was required of the city regarding its Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4) permit. She said the city is considered in the MS4 Phase II category and was issued a permit Sept. 6, 2016, effective Oct. 1, that expires in 2021. For the past 16 years, the city has been required to comply with ADEM requirements, Smith said.

She also said per an August 2016 audit, ADEM noted, “There were deficiencies” regarding the city’s compliance. “There are still some things that are deficient,” she said. She said penalty costs in some non-compliance cases elsewhere have ranged anywhere from $6,000 to $135,000. Of the city’s status, “Right now, I can’t say the City of Phenix City is in compliance,” Smith said.

It was noted that the city was out of compliance on two major points. She noted the city did submit a  Storm Water Management Program Plan (SWPP) on Dec. 30, 2016.

After Smith’s presentation, council members peppered her with various questions they’ve received from concerned business owners and others about how the ADEM requirements would translate into the proposed city ordinance, which the council approved the day after Smith’s presentation. Smith’s ultimate, repeated answer was that ADEM is the state regulatory body; it’s the city’s responsibility to decide how to implement, essentially, an ordinance -- which has regulatory power of enforcement -- that will ensure compliance with the ADEM requirements. 

When car dealer Steve Bailey, who’s also a new city councilman, asked Smith who determines which types of businesses are affected, Smith said, “It’s up to the city; that’s not me.”

To that, Bailey referenced being told Jan. 6 the city wasn’t in compliance and that he was trying to figure out which end of the battle he needed to address, noting he felt like he had a target on his back. He also said he’s for clean water, but realistically speaking, there’s never going to be only just rainwater going down city drains because of multiple factors like fertilizer runoff, etc., from people’s yards, or whatever other source. “There’s no way you can avoid it,” he said.

Bailey said his “animosity” comes from what he described as feeling misled, and feels there’s an issue because it seems like businesses can’t do what others can do.

City Engineer Angel Moore joined the conversation and mentioned there were three ways businesses could minimize their costs: 1) get the appropriate industrial permit from ADEM (which could cost around $1,385 for a 5-year individual permit, according to the ADEM representative), or 2) tie in to the city’s sanitary sewer line, or 3) submit an acceptable Best Management Practices (BMP) plan to the city on how run-off would be handled -- such as through use of a catch basin-type system, or pumping, or by other proper disposal. She repeated, as did many during the conversation, that the ordinance affects more than just the city’s operations and car washes, pressure washer car detailers and car dealerships. 

Mayor Eddie Lowe also added that, “We were all over the place because we didn’t know,” speaking of exactly how the city needed to draft the ordinance, which is why the city wanted an ADEM representative to appear and explain in more detail. During his address to the city council, local car dealership owner Dyer, said his central plea to the city regarding the ordinance was, “don’t be selective in enforcing.” Well familiar with ADEM, Dyer said he understands where the regulatory body is coming from, but as for the council and the ordinance it needed to pass, “Y’all -- you’ve got your hands full and I just feel for you.” He also expressed his concern that it appeared to him as though residential lots were going to be “left alone” and impacts -- be they fines or whatever -- were ultimately going to fall to business owners, when it comes to compliance issues. I really question how you’re going to “selectively enforce” these things, he opined.

““You have to start somewhere,” the mayor replied, noting that fortunately or unfortunately, “The businesses are the first ones we thought about.” He noted, as did others during the conversation, that the ordinance would impact more than just local car wash owners, car detail shops and car dealerships; it could affect all kinds of businesses, parking lot water run-off from places like shopping centers, banks, churches, etc., and many more.

The city engineer empathized with citizens’ concerns, noting the amount of time and work her department has put into understanding what the city needs to do.

“It is unfortunate -- it is,” Moore said of the overall matter. “It’s been an eye-opening experience on our part.”

In an interview after the Feb. 6 work session, White, representing the chamber board, said this is the first time he’s aware of the local business community dealing with an issue like the new ordinance. He said the city’s implementation timeline of it will be an important factor to watch. Cannon, in an interview after the work session said he heard what ADEM said and the council, but he doesn’t know if it really made him feel any better; he’s still waiting to see what ultimately happens.

The city held public hearings during its council meeting Feb. 7 on the city’s IDDE plan and Storm Water Management Plan (SMWP) and also on the second reading of the proposed ordinance (which passed by a majority vote, with Bailey voting no). One citizen who addressed the council during the public hearing asked if the state regulates how much stuff can be in the water and how to stop it from entering the flow. The mayor answered him that how the implementation occurs is up to the city. “It is what it is,” the mayor said. It was noted that the council “certainly doesn’t want to hurt any businesses” and that there’s a consideration of giving six months for compliance with the new city ordinance -- something that the city manager confirmed in an interview after the meeting, though it’s unclear whether that grace period is explicitly spelled out in the written ordinance. 

Meanwhile, from the city’s standpoint, the city manager reiterated that the stormwater control issue ultimately falls to the city’s leadership: “ADEM comes after the city first,” he said, of related city storm water issues.

Elsewhere in the meeting Feb. 7, the city council also approved utilities department resolutions related toward helping the city detect potential problems. He said the city’s not picking on any single entity, noting that the new ordinance affects industries, shopping centers, restaurants and grease run-off, etc., and more, but, “We’re just going to have to get more stringent.”