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Thar She Blows: A Great Idea Rises at City Hall. Fetch the Harpoons.

Thar She Blows: A Great Idea Rises at City Hall. Fetch the Harpoons.

Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. A huge idea turned up at City Hall yesterday. Huge. This is like a Blue whale beaching itself on the banks of the Trinity River. I'm afraid City Hall is going to send a crew out there and chop it into cat-food. We need to stop and take a big look at this big blue thing.

Council members Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs posed the idea of charging property-owners and developers for the amount of new flooding they cause. Specifically, they say we should raise "storm-water runoff" fees instead of what we do now.

What do we do now? Look at Uptown. Developers were allowed to run rampant over that whole part of the inner city, paving every inch of soil they could see so that no water can soak into the earth the way it's supposed to. Now all the rain that falls in that area is flood water, and we're about to get stuck for hundreds of millions of dollars to build new sewers to take care of it.

But let's not talk about the past. People did what they did. It was the way it was. Nobody was trying to kill anybody.

The concept Griggs and Hunt brought forward is one that's catching fire all over the country. We now have all kinds of construction technology, from green rooftops to permeable parking lots, that will allow rainwater to soak in, cutting way back on runoff. So the concept is not that we go out and order everybody by fiat to use those techniques. It's this:

City Hall rolls out the welcome matt for a whale of an idea.
City Hall rolls out the welcome matt for a whale of an idea.

We say, "Look, if you don't use the new techniques to cut back on runoff, and if you pave every inch the old-fashioned way, at some point in the not too distant future the taxpayers are going to get stuck for a huge bill to correct what you've done. The burden of putting in enormous new sewers for you is going to fall on everybody else.

"So we're going to charge you for that as you do it by imposing a fee based on the amount of new impervious surface you create. If you don't want to pay the fee, you can use the new techniques and not give us a headache down the road."

Is this some new hippie wacko idea? No, listen: I did a really quick check this morning, and this same idea is in some stage between debate and enactment in Waterloo, Iowa; Edmond and Norman, Oklahoma; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Baltimore, Maryland; Roanoke and Lynchburg, Virginia; Springfield, Tennessee; Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio; Newark, New Jersey; Pittsburgh and Grove City, Pennsylvania; Algoma, Wisconsin; LaGrange, Kentucky; Bozeman, Montana; Burbank, Washington; Boise, Idaho; Jackson, Michigan; and, if experience is my guide, a ton of places I missed.

Why the national push? Part of it, frankly, comes from the EPA. There are statutes under which municipalities can be and have been fined for not doing enough about runoff. But that's way at the low end of motivation.

The big stick is simple inevitability. Flooding is one of those enormous costs that will kill development in cities that fail to get it under control. You can only heap new bond issues on the taxpayers so long -- while you let their streets and parks go to hell -- in order to pay for this stuff. Some day that well will run dry.

It makes so much more sense to plan ahead and try to keep these huge new obligations as low as you can. That's what this is. It's planning ahead and making sure we're not creating a situation where the roof will fall on our heads someday.

Mayor Mike Rawlings and council member Ann Margolin said at yesterday's City Council meeting they were worried about new taxes and retroactively changing the deal on property-owners who developed their land under a set of rules at a given point in time. Both very fair points.

But there are different ways to look at it. Property-owners citywide are about to get hit with a whole new tax to pay off the bonds for the storm sewers needed under Uptown. When I bought my house, nobody told me I was going to have to pay to bail out a bunch of new development that isn't able to pay its own way.

Changing the rules mid-game is a legitimate concern. But are there not ways to do this that would grandfather in landowners who built under the old rules while applying new rules to new development?

There's got to be formula. Getting to it will require everybody to maintain basic respect for everybody else's issues. But Hunt said something yesterday that was spine-tinglingly major: She called this new idea "huge" and "a paradigm shift."

She's so right. You know what? This isn't just about storm water. It's about using the marketplace to price the environment. It's a principle that should apply to everything from air to noise to line of sight.

We need to stop pretending we can create a decent place to live and work using the old police-power model, sending the EPA out with its wet noodle of a stick to admonish everybody. We need to say, "Look, there are costs here. Real costs we can measure. And there are benefits. Here's the algorithm. Let's look at you. 'Oh, man, you're so neat, we owe you money.' Or, 'Man, you're so burdensome, you owe us money.'"

We can't just keep pushing it forward. That's not a road to success for anybody. Hunt's right. This idea is huge. That's a blue whale that showed up down there yesterday. It ain't cat-food.


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