Some momentum is afoot that might change how local developers build everything from shopping centers to neighborhoods in Grand Traverse County. At issue: stormwater runoff – the potentially contaminated water that, after a storm or snowmelt, flows from roads and parking lots into storm drains and, ultimately, into Grand Traverse Bay.
Currently, the Grand Traverse County Drain Commissioner enforces a stormwater ordinance in Garfield Township. It governs how builders deal with the excess water that builds up on their properties, to prevent erosion and cut down on contaminants. But that agreement expires in December. Discussions are now underway about changing the ordinance to require more forward-thinking green solutions.
“Traditional stormwater management techniques only retain water. They do not work to treat the water or remove any pollutants,” says Sarah U’Ren, program director at the Watershed Center. “When these pollutants enter local streams, rivers and storm sewer systems, they make their way to the Bay and negatively affect water quality.”
People like U’Ren would like to see traditional retention ponds and stormwater basins, like the ones seen outside many shopping centers, including the Grand Traverse Mall, replaced with low-impact techniques, like rain gardens, porous pavements, and green roofs. These structures direct stormwater into areas planted with flowering plants and shrubs, which, along with soil, absorb the pollutants and oils in the water instead of sending them into the Bay.
John Nelson, aka The Baykeeper, sits on Garfield Township’s planning commission board. He says he wants to change the ordinance to encourage – or perhaps even require –developers and engineers to use natural drainage techniques.
“The main reason is to keep water from flowing from the surface into streams,” Nelson says. “It warms the streams, and adds [unwanted] nutrients, sediments, and invasive species.”
Robert Larrea, Garfield Township’s director of planning, says going green is a realistic goal – if changes to the zoning ordinances are realistic, and if it makes the process simpler for developers to follow.
“The system itself should be efficient, flexible, and without a financial burden to the applicant,” he says. “We are curious to see if we can provide a better service at a better cost to our residents and those wanting to build in our community.”
Larrea adds that the current system, in which developers receive credits on their stormwater fees for using low-impact designs, might be the best option. The problem? Some developers have criticized the current stormwater credit worksheet for being too rigid, complicated, and something only an engineer can decipher.
Still, Grand Traverse County Drain Commissioner Kevin McElyea says the current way of doing things encourages environmental designs, has worked well for 23 years, and is a model ordinance for other communities nationwide. He wants to make sure any change is one for the better.
“While we have been requesting low-impact designs already, I don’t think this is an appropriate time to require it of developers,” he says. “I do, however, think more education on the benefits or incentives to developers would be appropriate at this time.”
The Garfield Township planning board has set a tentative date of October 24 to discuss the ordinance and proposed changes.