Salisbury Hears From Berlin On Stormwater Utility

SALISBURY — The city of Salisbury is taking early steps to explore a new potential stormwater utility, looking to nearby communities like Berlin for initial guidance.
Salisbury should pursue the establishment of a stormwater utility, according to Berlin Mayor Gee Williams. He told the Salisbury City Council that it has been a fruitful course so far for Berlin, though at times a challenging one.
“If there’s anything that I want to make sure I leave with you today, it’s that I really believe that, during our experience, that there were a lot of lessons learned,” Williams said. “You should have every confidence that this is a process that you can not only survive but in which you can succeed. I encourage you not to fear what you are getting into.”
Over the past year, Berlin has created its own stormwater utility to manage construction projects designed to alleviate flooding and runoff issues following weather events. The utility collects a flat $50 fee from all residential properties and charges commercial properties within town limits based on the amount of impervious surface on each lot. That fee has created some contention among a few members of the community, Williams admitted.
“We did not expect, nor did we receive, an absolute consensus for any neighborhood or group,” he told the council. “Over time, we did receive overwhelming support from residents and what I would describe as begrudging support from those non-residential property owners who are being impacted the most by our new stormwater utility fees.”
A stormwater utility can be a hard sell for some people, Williams continued. Not usually for those who have to deal with flooding after it rains, but more for property owners who don’t see signs of obvious stormwater impact.
“It’s one thing to be directly impacted. You don’t have to sell those folks. They have been coming to council meetings for many years, explaining their dilemma,” said Williams. “What was important here was to explain it to the folks that live, fortunately, in those areas that were maybe a foot or more in elevation above the rest of the town and water always ran away from their properties.”
An emphasis on stormwater being a “community shared responsibility” is key, he said. And that shared responsibility is why, for Berlin at least, no properties are excluded from the stormwater utility fee, including non-profits, churches and schools.
“There are no exceptions and by ‘no,’ I mean absolutely no exceptions,” said Williams.
Williams indicated that the utility is already showing signs of success in Berlin. But that town is different from Salisbury in a lot of ways and what works in one town may not work in the other. For example, if Salisbury decided to charge every property in the city a stormwater utility fee, it might run the risk of encouraging people to build just outside of city limits.
“The one thing that concerns me or that I want to be cognizant of at this point is that we don’t want to create an incentive for sprawl,” said Salisbury Council President Jake Day.
Sprawl is a fluid and tricky animal, said Mike Moulds, director of public works for Salisbury. There are a lot of tools the state has to counter suburban sprawl, but most of them are “little sticks” that have questionable effectiveness.
Williams recommended the council work in collaboration with Wicomico County to develop an overarching stormwater management strategy that would counter flooding and runoff without encouraging sprawl.
“The county needs to jump on board. This is a matter of public responsibility,” he said.
Officials from both towns agreed that residents need to be heavily involved in the creation of any new utility. Berlin went through more than a dozen meetings on, or related, to the topic of stormwater.
“We had, like the mayor said, numerous public meetings, executive sessions, technical sessions, work sessions,” said Darl Kolar, representing E.A. Engineering, the firm handling Berlin’s stormwater. “And still after the implementation, and now we’re on our second or third month of collecting fees, we’re still getting questions from folks coming up expressing that they don’t understand or they’re not clear on it.”
Public outreach remains an ongoing process even with Berlin’s utility established, added Williams. He believes that discussion is a good thing and is pleased to see residents talking about stormwater openly, since it was ignored for decades, in his opinion.
“It’s in to talk about stormwater at a cocktail party in Berlin,” he told the council.
Salisbury will be looking at how other communities are handling stormwater as well, including Ocean City, Fruitland and other neighbors. The administration in Salisbury is keen on actually establishing a new utility and the council is expected to track the issue closely for the next several months.