Princeton Concil has awarded a contract to a consultancy firm to investigate whether the town should set up a ‘stormwater utility‘. If so, every local property owner would be required to pay a new fee, which would be dependent on the amount of stormwater runoff generated at their site. The revenues would fund local improvements to manage stormwater. The decision to fund the study was made after a short discussion at the end of the April 11 Council meeting.
A law passed by the New Jersey state government in 2019 gives towns the ablity to set up a stormwater utility and fund it by charging fees to local property owners. So far, no towns have done so, although the Pinelands community of Hammonton NJ is actively exploring it at the moment. Elected officials typically fear the characterization of stormwater fees as a “rain tax“, but Princeton Councilman David Cohen argued that a stormwater utility is a fairer way of funding stormwater mitigation than what is done in the present day. Cohen said that the town’s responses to the ever-increasing floods are currently funded out of property taxes. With a stormwater utility, mitigation efforts in future would be paid for by the property owners who contribute most to the problem. Importantly, non-profit institutions like Princeotn University would still be required to pay stormwater impact fees.
The study into whether a stormwater utility is right for Princeton will proceed in four phases. ‘Princeton Hydro‘ working with ‘Wood Plc‘ submitted the winning bid. It was selected from among nine responses to the town’s request for proposals, which was issued last year. At this stage, Council has chosen to advance ‘Phase I’ of the study, at a cost of $85,359. Council member Michelle Pirone Lambros expressed enthusiasm for the study, but noted that the total cost could run to $325,000 if all four anticipated phases are completed. Council has the choice to terminate or continue the consultation at the end of each phase.
Extensive public consultation would take place through meetings and workshops in Phase II, if Council agrees to fund it. The overall effort is likely to take years. David Cohen agreed that it was not guaranteed that Council would ultimately agree to set up a stormwater utility, but opined that he considered it a “no-brainer” as a mechanism to fund flood mitigation efforts. Council is also pursuing other stormwater mitigation measures, in part through its dedicated “Flood and Storm Water Commission“, which meets monthly. The town has recently passed much-stricter requirements for management of stormwater flows on redevelopments, and has lobbied for stricter stormwater requirements to be applied to apartment buildings. One recent application for construction of two new homes in the Littlebrook neighborhood has a 200-page stormwater management plan.
A potential stormwater utility would be innovative, because it would recognize the reality that stormwater runoff is generated not just by new developments, but by all the developments that have taken place in Princeton over the town’s entire history. Many of these developments are subdivisions that were laid out in the middle of the 20th century, when there was almost no attention paid to water flows. The soils in Princeton are often so compacted and of such poor quailty that water runs off lawns almost as if it was asphalt. Requiring new developments to mitigate all the flooding problems that have come about through generations of bad management is unlikely to be successful, but a holistic solution like a stormwater utility could work.
Link to Agenda packet for April 11 meeting, including Resolution 22-140, which funds Phase I of the stormwater utility study: click here
Video of Council meeting (discussion of stormwater utility begins at 2:28:05):
At first glance, this looks kind of quixotic. We can do all the remediation we want but will storm water know to stop at the municipal demarcation lines? Shouldn’t this be tackled in a regional or state-wide scale?
Good point, and yes, Princeton is also having those discussions with neighboring towns in the Stony Brook watershed. New Jersey has good stormwater rules for new development and Princeton has improved on those. However, considerable stormwater is generated in town and flows in streams that are entirely in Princeton, such as Harry’s Brook and its tributaries. The other major issue is maintenance, repair and (where necessary) upgrades of the stormwater systems that we rely upon to keep water from flooding our streets, yards, etc.