Ohio Supreme Court Says Sewer District Can Charge Stormwater Fees

by R. Russell O’Rourke, Esq

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled this morning that the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has the authority to create a program to manage stormwater and can assess a fee to implement that plan. In its Majority Opinion, written by Justice Pfeifer, the Court held that, “ORC. 6119.011(K) identifies two types of ‘waste water,’ one of which is ‘any storm water.’” Since NEORSD’s stormwater management program would collect, treat, and dispose of stormwater, the program falls within the sewer district’s authority under state law. The fee the Sewer District will charge individual property owners is based on the amount of impervious surfaces, primarily the roof (if the water is discharged into the stormwater system), roads, parking lots and driveways present on the property.

FEES CHARGED—RESIDENTIAL. Assuming the Sewer District uses the same fee structure as it first proposed in 2013, the fees charged to the average homeowner will be relatively minimal, about $9 to $27 per quarter, as each home has a limited amount of impervious surfaces. While credits are available for managing some of the stormwater by installing different types of driveway surfaces and re-directing roof water from entering the storm sewer, many communities require roof water to go directly into the storm sewer or place restrictions on water collection barrels attached to downspouts. The calculation for Single Family Residential (“SFR”) property uses the actual square footage of impervious surfaces on the property. SFR properties are divided into three categories of such surfaces:

  • Tier 1 (small) < 2,000 sq. ft., $9.09/quarter;
  • Tier 2 (medium) between 2,000 and 4,000 sq. ft., $15.15/quarter; and
  • Tier 3 (large) > 4,000 sq. ft., $27.27/quarter.

FEES CHARGED—OTHER THAN SINGLE FAMILY RESIDENTIAL. Heftier fees will be paid by commercial and industrial owners with large impervious parking lots and roof water collection systems that discharge into the storm sewer and other users such as apartment complexes, condominium and homeowners associations. In addition to the Single Family Residential property fees described above, the 2013 rate schedule addresses non-single family residential (“NSFR”) (which apparently is an awkward way to say, “everything but single family residential,” it is apparently not a category limited to other residential properties). The fee for NSFR properties is based on Equivalent Residential Units (“ERUs”), which are equal to 3,000 sq. ft. of impervious area, determined by calculating the actual number of square feet of impervious area and rounding to the nearest ERU. The amount of the fee for NSFR properties is $5.05/ERU/month, paid quarterly. In an NEORSD example (shown in the slideshow link below), a facility with 45,000 sq. ft. of impervious area (approximately a one-acre parcel with a building, driveway and parking lot and little, if any, lawn or other pervious surfaces) would pay for 15 ERUs at $5.05, an amount equaling $227.25/quarter. The District allows credits to reduce the amount paid by NSFR owners, which credits are listed below.

AVAILABLE CREDITS: Based on the Sewer District’s 2013 plan:

SFR Property Owners are entitled to up to a 25% credit for making improvements to limit the stormwater from entering the sewer system;

NSFR Property Owners are eligible for up to a 100% credit (a combined discount of up to 25% for stormwater quality improvements and up to 75% credit for stormwater quantity limitations); and

Public and Private Primary, Elementary and Secondary Schools are eligible for a flat 25% credit for education, but can also apply for the combined NSFR credit for individual school properties.

2013 NEORSD Stormwater Fee Credit Manual (prior to 8th District Ruling)

Examples of improvements eligible to receive the credits would include roads, parking lots and driveways which area already or changed to pervious surfaces, such as bricks with spaces permitting stormwater to filter into the subsurface and below ground storage/infiltration chambers, permitting stormwater to collect disburse into the soil below or water retention ponds similar to those seen near many highway interchanges.

PURPOSE OF THE FEE: The point of the fee is two-fold: first, to raise capital to build and maintain improvements; and second, to encourage landowners to make changes to limit the stormwater being deposited into our wastewater system. As you know, in the Greater Cleveland Area, our system is a combined storm and wastewater system which delivers ALL of the “water” to the sewage treatment plants in the area. This works until a storm inundates the system with stormwater creating an overflow of the combined storm and wastewater, carrying that combined overflow into our rivers, streams and lakes, including Lake Erie. There is no word yet on whether the Sewer District will assess fees for the period between the initial institution of the fee, prior to the lawsuit and this new Ohio Supreme Court Ruling. In fact, in a 2013 NEORSD FAQ Sheet, the District advised that it would make the decision after today’s ruling.

IT’S MORE MONEY, BUT IS THERE ANYTHING GOOD? Some property owners and communities will see this is a win because the storm water management program the obligation of the NEORSD to build and maintain the stormwater system, which includes improvements, such as large culverts, otherwise the responsibility of the property owner. These improvements are required to be oversized—read “more expensive”—for the use of the property itself, because the improvement must be designed to handle all of the water being dumped into the system by upstream property owners. It is also seen as a win by environmentalists as the construction funded by the fees will be used to improve the stormwater/wastewater system so as to limit the amount of overflow going into our streams, rivers and lakes.

Article on Suspended Projects following the 8th District Ruling

NEORSD Slide Show Explaining Fees, Credits and Purposes of the Fee