Planning Group Gets Stormwater Tutorial

Also, State Street corridor study on hold over budget concerns

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (May 3, 2011): Tuesday’s meeting featured a presentation on stormwater management by the city’s new water quality manager, Jennifer Lawson.

Jennifer Lawson

Jennifer Lawson, Ann Arbor's new water quality manager, gave a presentation to planning commissioners about the city's stormwater management issues. (Photos by the writer.)

Lawson described the city’s efforts to reduce or eliminate pollutants from entering the Huron River because of stormwater runoff, and fielded a range of questions from commissioners. Her presentation was likely the only time that the term “poo water” and a quote by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle have occurred during the same public meeting.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners approved minor revisions to the city’s master plan, as part of a process that occurs each May. No one spoke during a public hearing on the revisions.

Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, told commissioners that efforts to seek a consultant for a South State Street corridor study have been put on hold, following concerns raised by some city councilmembers over the project’s cost.

In other business, a public hearing was announced for the commission’s May 17 meeting regarding a request by Summers-Knoll School for a special exception use. If granted, the special exception would allow an office building at 2203 Platt Road to be converted into a private school.

Stormwater Management in Ann Arbor

Jennifer Lawson, the city’s water quality manager, was hired earlier this year to replace Molly Wade, who was promoted last year to manager of water treatment services. Lawson began her presentation by giving some personal background, noting that she’s the daughter of a civil engineer who took her to construction sites when she was a girl. She majored in environmental studies at Michigan State University, and later got a master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Michigan. Before taking the job in Ann Arbor, Lawson worked for a civil engineering firm and as an environmental specialist with the city of Troy.

Lawson works in the city’s systems planning unit, and noted that the department deal with several stormwater issues, including flooding and quality concerns – stormwater picks up pollutants when it flows toward the Huron River. The city handles the public stormwater system, but tries to help private property owners when possible, she said. After last week’s heavy rains, her office received several calls from residents who had flooding on their property, she noted, but the city is limited in what it can do. City staff try to coordinate with Washtenaw County’s office of the water resources commissioner, and support efforts encouraging residents to use rain barrels and rain gardens on their property.

The city is also working with several neighborhoods that have chronic flooding and stormwater problems, including the Bryant neighborhood/Arbor Oaks, Summit Street, Chaucer Court, and neighborhoods along Allen Creek.

The city has adopted the standards set by the county water resources commissioner (WRC) to address stormwater management, Lawson said. To manage both the quantity and quality of runoff, stormwater basins must be designed to capture and treat three different storm events: (1) the 100-year storm event; (2) the “bankfull” flood –  a 1.5 year/24-hour storm event; and (3) “first flush” volume – runoff from the first 0.5 inches of rain coming from the entire contributing watershed.

The county is currently updating its standards, Lawson reported, and will likely release those in June.

Lawson also described another program related to stormwater management: The MS4 (municipal separate storm sewer system) stormwater permit. Municipalities are required by federal law to obtain this permit, and to address stormwater runoff in several specific ways:

  • public education
  • public involvement/participation
  • an illicit discharge elimination plan – developing ways to prevent substances other than stormwater from entering the stormwater system
  • post-construction stormwater control – requiring new developments to manage stormwater runoff through detention ponds and other means
  • construction stormwater control – having a regulatory mechanism to prevent or reduce pollutant runoff at construction sites
  • pollution prevention and “good housekeeping” to prevent pollutant runoff from municipal operations – everything from the city’s vehicle fleet to golf course design.

Lawson also discussed management of total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs [pronounced \TIM-duhls\]. This is a term in the U.S. Clean Water Act that refers to the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting federal water quality standards. Locally, there are plans to address water quality issues in several areas: for e.coli in the Huron River and Honey Creek; for biotas in Malletts Creek and Swift Run; and for phosphorus in Ford Lake. Lawson referred commissioners to the Huron River Watershed website for more details. [.pdf file of stormwater plan to address TMDLs]

The city has undertaken several initiatives to deal with water quality as it relates to stormwater runoff, Lawson said. Ann Arbor is collaborating with partners like the county’s water resources commissioner and the Huron River Watershed Council. Another approach is the city’s phosphorus ordinance, which took effect in 2007. Staff is also actively looking to eliminate any cross-connections between the sanitary sewer and the stormwater system. Street sweeping and urban wildlife management are among the other measures designed to improve water quality of stormwater runoff, she said.

Stormwater management is a big issue, Lawson said. “Last week, it was a headache,” she said, “but I’d like it to be more of an amenity.”

Lawson concluded with a quote by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle: “The work an unknown good man has done is like a vein of water flowing hidden underground, secretly making the ground green.”

Stormwater Management: Commissioner Questions, Comments

Wendy Woods wanted to know whether the University of Michigan followed the same water quality regulations, and who had oversight of UM’s compliance. Lawson said that although the university had the option of nesting within the city’s jurisdiction, they chose to operate under their own permit and have their own processes and procedures. She said the university does coordinate with the city, however.

Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, noted that the university tends to handle its stormwater management on a regional basis, looking at sections of the campus as it plans. In contrast, the city handles stormwater management on a parcel-by-parcel basis.

Jean Carlberg asked whether the city has ways of dealing with developers who inadequately address stormwater issues, like those that occur in the Arbor Oaks neighborhood. Lawson replied that there are different city regulations in place for developments that didn’t exist when Arbor Oaks was built.

Tony Derezinski said that the deer population is a big problem in the city, and he wondered if Lawson was doing anything directly related to that. Lawson observed that deer tend to travel along river corridors, but she hasn’t yet had any questions arise about the city’s deer population. If she did, she said she’d likely coordinate with the city’s parks and recreation staff about it.

Noting that she’d recently been reading about the Pall-Gelman 1,4 dioxane plume that’s contaminated aquifers underneath the city, Woods asked whether Lawson was working with Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator, on that situation. Lawson reported that Naud was helping get her up to speed, and that she had attended a public meeting on the issue several weeks ago. [See Chronicle coverage: "Residents Frustrated by Dioxane Decision"]

It’s a tough situation for the city, Lawson said, because it doesn’t have control over what the state decides to do to monitor and manage the dioxane plume. Woods suggested that the city staff put together a memo that can be distributed to residents, giving them an update. She said she read The Chronicle’s coverage, but that the city should provide information too.

Erica Briggs asked why stormwater wasn’t treated like wastewater, and put through a cleaning process. Lawson said that when the city was first built, there weren’t concerns about stormwater – so the system in the older sections of town drains into pipes that flow directly into the Huron River. Outside the urban core, over time, developments were built that treated runoff in different ways – for example, through detention ponds, bioswales, or more recently with devices like swirl concentrators. There was a paradigm shift in the 1980s and ’90s when the city began to look more seriously at treating stormwater, she said.

Rampson asked Lawson to explain the difference between the city’s separate sewer and stormwater systems, and the combined system that some other cities use. Lawson described how her own home in Wayne County is connected to the Detroit sanitary wastewater system. Instead of having two pipes – one for “poo water” and one for stormwater – in the Detroit system, both wastewater and stormwater use the same pipe. So when there are storms that flood the system, it can cause sewage discharge – it’s a capacity issue, she said.

In Ann Arbor, there are two systems. Wastewater flows to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, and stormwater is either treated on-site through bioswales or other means, or flows into the stormwater drainage system and into the Huron River.

Carlberg asked what the most pressing issue is regarding stormwater management. Lawson cited the city’s impervious surfaces – that’s directly related to the quantity of runoff, she said. Any water they can keep out of the stormwater system or treat before it goes in is a step in the right direction, she said.

Carlberg wondered whether Lawson would be returning to the commission with suggestions about how to deal with that issue. Yes, Lawson said, as it relates to city capital improvement projects, which is what she’ll be working on as part of the systems planning staff.

Kirk Westphal asked whether Lawson foresees collaboration on ordinances dealing with private developments. She replied that the city needs to partner with the county water resources commissioner on these issues. Regarding developers, Lawson said she finds that education and encouragement often get better results.

Rampson asked whether Lawson had any opinion about which strategies were more effective at managing stormwater – mechanized systems, like swirl concentrators, or natural processes of infiltration.

Lawson noted that Mother Nature has been managing stormwater runoff forever, while mechanized means are relatively new – she has questions about the long-term functionality of these systems. However, on certain sites the mechanized systems might be a better option, she added, if the soil doesn’t allow for infiltration and there’s not enough space for a detention pond, for example.

Evan Pratt noted that the county’s water resources commissioner is collecting data on the rainwater collection and treatment system that’s installed in the north lawn of the Pioneer High School property. They’re doing downstream sampling of Allen Creek to see if the system is doing what the manufacturer said it will – in a year or so, they’ll have some data to measure its effectiveness.

Master Plan Revisions

The planning commission’s bylaws require that each May, the commission review the city’s master plan and hold a public hearing before adopting any revisions.

City planning staff proposed two revisions: (1) adding the recently updated Parks & Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan; and (2) adding references in the master plan’s resource information list to two studies related to the Washtenaw Avenue corridor – the Washtenaw County Access Management Plan, and the Washtenaw Avenue Corridor Redevelopment Strategy. [.pdf file of master plan resolution at start of the May 3 meeting]

No one spoke during the public hearing on the master plan revisions.

The master plan and supporting documents can be downloaded from the city’s website.

Master Plan Revisions: Commissioner Discussion

Evan Pratt asked whether the recently approved downtown design guidelines – part of the broader A2D2 (Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown) overhaul – should be included as a resource document. [The city council approved the design guidelines at their Feb. 7, 2011 meeting, and the planning commission approved a companion design review process at their April 5, 2011 meeting.]

Kirk Westphal

Kirk Westphal chaired the planning commission's May 3 meeting in the absence of chair Eric Mahler.

After a brief discussion, commissioners voted unanimously to include the downtown design guidelines as a resource document.

Pratt also asked how easily the public could find information on the master plan. Rampson noted that on the city’s planning website, the left sidebar includes a link to the master plan page.

Jean Carlberg suggested adding dates to the list of documents used as resources for the master plan. Indicating the year for each document will eliminate some potential confusion, she said – for example, there are several versions of the downtown plan circulating in the community, she noted.

Bonnie Bona asked whether the State Street corridor work and whatever comes out of the Washtenaw Avenue corridor efforts will be incorporated into the master plan itself, or whether they’d be included as resource documents. Rampson said that staff envisioned those efforts as either being separate chapters or incorporated in some other way into the master plan’s section on land use elements.

Wendy Woods asked whether other city commissions, like the park advisory commission, should be included in one of the resolved clauses in the resolution for the master plan revisions:

Resolved, The City Planning Commission will assist in the development of a Sustainability Framework, in coordination with the Energy Commission and Environmental Commission;

Bona noted that they’d like to be as inclusive as possible, and suggested adding “and other commissions” to the clause. The energy and environmental commissions were likely cited because, like the planning commission, those groups had passed resolutions on sustainability following a joint session last year of all three commissions. Commissioners voted unanimously to amend the clause as suggested.

Outcome: Planning commissioners unanimously approved revisions to the city of Ann Arbor’s master plan, as amended.

Public Hearing Set for Summers-Knoll

A public hearing has been set for May 17 regarding a request by Summers-Knoll School for a special exception use. If granted, the special exception would allow the school to convert an office building at 2203 Platt Road into a private school, for a maximum of 144 students in grades K-8.

There was no discussion on this item.

Communications from Commissioners, Staff

There were several opportunities for commissioners and staff to share information during the meeting. Here are some highlights.

Communications: Report from City Council

Tony Derezinski, a planning commissioner who also serves on city council, briefed commissioners on planning-related items from the council’s Monday meeting. He noted that the meeting was a long one, lasting until nearly midnight. The new CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK, Paul Krutko, had been introduced, and Derezinski said Krutko was interested in the commission’s recent “community crawl” – a reference to last week’s planning commission retreat that included a bus tour along Washtenaw Avenue. An effort to revitalize that stretch crosses four jurisdictions – Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti Township and Ypsilanti – and represents the kind of regional approach that SPARK embraces, Derezinski said.

Tony Derezinski

Tony Derezinski gave fellow planning commissioners a report from Monday night's city council meeting. He also represents Ward 2 on city council.

The city council had approved the Packard Square site plan, Derezinski said, noting that several neighbors spoke during public commentary in support of the proposal. The planning commission had recommended approval of the project at its March 15, 2011 meeting.

But much of Monday’s council meeting was spent discussing medical marijuana ordinances, Derezinski noted. One of the points that was “aggressively debated” was a proposal to remove cultivation facilities from a requirement to file for a license with the city – he said he was on the losing side of that decision. Ultimately, council voted to postpone the two local laws on medical marijuana – one on zoning and another on licensing – and to take them up again at their June 6 meeting.

Derezinski indicated that the council has spent too much of their time on this issue – they’ve discussed it at various meetings for about a year – and that more of the details should have been worked out before the proposed ordinances were brought to them by the city attorney’s staff.

Wendy Woods asked Derezinski whether the council might be accused of delaying major legislation until after the university students leave town. Yes, they probably would be accused of that, he replied.

Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, noted that an article in the Michigan Daily – the University of Michigan student newspaper – had incorrectly reported that the medical marijuana ordinances were passed. [That article was subsequently picked up by the Associated Press wire service and widely distributed to media across the country.]

“That’s the old ‘Triumph of hope over experience,’” Derezinski quipped.

Communications: Planning Manager

In response to a question from commissioner Kirk Westphal, planning manager Wendy Rampson reported that the request for proposals (RFP) for a consultant to conduct a study of the South State Street corridor had been put on hold. The commission had discussed this project at their April 12, 2011 working session.

Some councilmembers have raised concerns about making any expenditure, she said, even one that had been previously budgeted. [About $150,000 was available for the project, though it was not expected that the entire amount would be used. Those funds are in the budget for the current fiscal year, but would require city council approval to be carried over into FY2012, which begins July 1, 2011. The council voted on Oct. 18, 2010 to move the appropriated funds out of the general fund reserve and into the FY 2011 budget, because the money had been unspent in FY 2010, but not carried forward in the FY 2011 budget.]

Wendy Rampson

Wendy Rampson, the city of Ann Arbor's planning manager.

Rampson said that if the city council doesn’t want to pay for an outside consultant, she’ll come back to the commission with a Plan B, which would likely allocate internal staff resources to the project.

Derezinski said he’d been defending the expenditure to his fellow councilmembers, but noted that the city is facing a budget deficit and everyone is being asked to give up something.

Present: Bonnie Bona, Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.

Absent: Eric Mahler.

Next regular meeting: Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 7 p.m. in the city hall second-floor council chambers, 301 N. Huron St., Ann Arbor. The commission will hold a working session on Tuesday, May 10 at 7 p.m. on the fourth floor conference room of city hall. [confirm date]

One Comment

  1. By Alan Goldsmith
    May 5, 2011 at 1:06 pm | permalink

    “Tony Derezinski said that the deer population is a big problem in the city, and he wondered if Lawson was doing anything directly related to that. Lawson observed that deer tend to travel along river corridors, but she hasn’t yet had any questions arise about the city’s deer population. If she did, she said she’d likely coordinate with the city’s parks and recreation staff about it.”

    Yep, one of the major issues facing the City and the rest of America. Lol. Thanks Council Memeber Derezinski for bravely confronting this contrversial issue.