Legal battle over Stonefield stormwater raises questions about how to deal with runoff

The Shops at Stonefield, Albemarle County’s largest development located on U.S. 29, is under scrutiny again as developer Edens faces a lawsuit from rival property owner Great Eastern Management. Photo: Jack Looney The Shops at Stonefield, Albemarle County’s largest development located on U.S. 29, is under scrutiny again as developer Edens faces a lawsuit from rival property owner Great Eastern Management. Photo: Jack Looney

The developers of The Shops at Stonefield are again ensnared in a dispute over stormwater, and this time, the county and city are also under fire in a case that could highlight changes in the ways municipalities are expected to deal with runoff.

Great Eastern Management Company, which owns Seminole Square Shopping Center on the other side of Route 29, has joined Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company in a suit against Stonefield developer Edens, the City of Charlottesville, and Albemarle County, claiming that millions of gallons of stormwater from Stonefield will unlawfully inundate and damage their properties, and local environmentalists are keeping a watchful eye on the development and how it will affect nearby waterways.

Stonefield may be the largest development in Albemarle County history, but it drains onto properties within the city limits just across Route 29. After Edens placed a 72′ drainage pipe underneath the road, Great Eastern Management argued that the pipe would unfairly dump runoff onto  its property, and without steps to control the water—an effort it wanted Edens to pay for—flooding would ensue.

The city took up Great Eastern’s part in the fight, and issued Edens a citation last June for violating an erosion permit. Last month, the parties settled, and Edens posted a $150,000 bond to cover the next five years’ worth of potential stormwater damage. It wasn’t good enough for the property owners on the city side.

According to Great Eastern spokesperson Pam Fitzgerald, the Stonefield stormwater will flood the plaintiffs’ properties at 50 times the frequency of current conditions, causing enough damage to potentially render the property undevelopable in the future. The suit also says Edens’ development plans fail to meet state, county, and city stormwater management codes, and both the city and county are named in the suit for misapplying regulations to the project.

Fitzgerald said the existing drainage facilities on Great Eastern and Pepsi’s properties, which consist of a ravine and a dam, have been sufficiently managing stormwater for years. But with added drainage from the 72′ pipe, she said, too much water would flow onto the property.

“It’s just not designed to accommodate the kind of water that Stonefield’s trying to divert,” she said. “At the rate at which it’s flowing, it’s not only a possibility, but a strong likelihood that it will flood and cause damage.”

Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker said he wasn’t surprised by the new lawsuit, but as far as he knew, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation reviewed the permits issued by the city and county.

“It received some significant scrutiny, but even after that, they determined that all the state and local regulations had been followed,” he said.

Both the county’s and the city’s attorneys declined to answer questions about the pending litigation, and an Edens representative did not return calls for comment.

Despite the timing, Fitzgerald said the lawsuit brought against Edens is not an attempt to delay the next phase of the Stonefield project. What they want is simple.

“Three words: close the pipe,” she said.

The argument may be playing out as a battle between competing property owners, but at its core is a bigger question about how best to handle one of the most immediate impacts of development. According to local environmental watchdogs and water conservation experts, developers like Edens can and should be finding better ways to manage stormwater.

Lonnie Murray, the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District’s Albemarle representative, said that legalities aside, the developers of Stonefield “could have done better,” and he’s been concerned since the arrival of giant metal pipes in 2011.

“They told me the pipes were for stormwater,” Murray said. “You could call it stormwater; another name for that is streams.”

The underground pipes replaced two intermittent streams that flowed across the property, now covered by the shopping center’s foundation.

“The best way of managing stormwater would have been to keep those streams there,” he said. “Existing streams are so much more effective at treating stormwater than any kind of engineered solution.”

Rules surrounding stormwater management are changing, Murray said, and stricter codes are being applied to protect Virginia’s waterways, like the new regulations from the state to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

“If those kinds of erosion sediment controls were put on [Stonefield], we would be looking at a very different site right now,” he said.

Murray said sticking the streams underground is also contradictory to recent efforts made in the city and county to fix waterways damaged by stormwater—including Meadow Creek, where the Stonefield runoff ultimately ends up. The city is finishing up a massive $4 million restoration of the creek, funded by a grant from the Army Corps of Engineers and The Nature Conservancy.

“Why are we paying millions of dollars to restore the streams when we’re covering up the headwaters?” he said.

Rivanna River Basin Commission Executive Director Leslie Middleton said there are ways for developers to maintain streams and encourage natural infiltration systems, whether it’s required by the regulations or not. There’s a tension between wanting to protect our streams and other forces pushing toward economic development, Middleton said. But she thinks it’s possible to have both.

“There are well-known and even demonstrated cost-effective ways of developing properties so that there is greater green space,” she said. “We’re just at the beginning edge of that kind of way of thinking where we recognize that not only is it good for our streams…but we would be providing a much appreciated amenity in the midst of a lot of hardscape.”