County controversy: Farmers say rain tax targets rural areas

Drivers of about 55 tractors rallied against the rain tax in White Hall before Supervisor Ann Mallek’s town hall meeting. Photo by Richard Fox Drivers of about 55 tractors rallied against the rain tax in White Hall before Supervisor Ann Mallek’s town hall meeting. Photo by Richard Fox

proposed stormwater utility fee in Albemarle that has widely become known as the “rain tax” has caused quite the ruckus. But a similar one in the city continues to go off without a hitch.

County farmers say rural areas are unfairly targeted by the potential fee, because it will be calculated based on the number of impermeable surfaces—such as outbuildings, travelways and barns—included on a property. The exact fee has not yet been determined.

Photo by Richard Fox

“You don’t get rich farming,” says Richard Fox, an owner of Roslyn Farm and participant of a March 24 rally in White Hall in which farmers against the rain tax rode about 55 tractors to Supervisor Ann Mallek’s town hall meeting. “It will put some farms out of business because they won’t be able to afford the additional tax. They’re barely breaking even as it is.”

He says farmers do their work “for the love of the land,” and are naturally environmentalists. But they’d prefer if the stormwater fee was funded by the general fund, instead of by “taxing the backbone of this county.”

The initial impetus for the program was to comply with a state Department of Environmental Quality mandate to prevent runoff from reaching the Chesapeake Bay and improve local drainage systems, Mallek says.

County officials have been discussing the fee since 2014, when they agreed to put 7 cents of each dollar collected in real estate tax toward a water resources protection program. Mallek says that fund is at about $1.2 million now.

The supervisor originally supported the fee because properties with more impermeable substances would be charged more, which is not possible when drawing from the general fund, but says she’s having second thoughts after about 125 people, including Fox, showed up at the March meeting.

“If the process is so complicated that I can’t explain it to people and tell them how much it’s going to help, then I’m making a mistake by pursuing it,” Mallek says.

Jack Brown, a member of the Rivanna Conservation Alliance for 15 years and current chair of its public affairs committee, says a city stormwater utility fee has been collected twice annually since 2014.

“Albemarle has even a greater need than Charlottesville did,” he says, because, for a long time, the county has had less regulation and oversight of stormwater infrastructure.

The fee will pay for long-needed repairs, connections and improvements to the systems of culverts and pipes that carry stormwater off individual properties and into common resources, like the Rivanna River, he adds.

“Calling this a ‘rain tax’ appeals to anti-tax advocates and libertarians,” says Brown. “But policy should arise out of facts, not from appeals to fuzzy ideology.”

A new group with a website called No Rain Tax Albemarle has emerged, and its name is plastered on electronic flyers that claim the proposed fee will case a “HUGE, expensive government bureaucracy that will never go away.”

After repeated messages from C-VILLE, the group’s organizers remain unidentified—a fact that concerns some locals.

Says Dunlora resident Caroline Polk, “Unless the people running it are willing to come forward and put their names on the site and where the funding comes from, I would be very suspicious and treat this not as reasoned argument against the fee, but just knee-jerk anti-tax hysteria.”

The Board of Supervisors will meet April 11 for a work session on the proposed fee.

City fee explained

The city has collected $7.6 million in stormwater utility fees since it started billing in 2014. The fee is $1.20 per month, per billing unit, and a billing unit is equal to 500 square feet of impervious surface.

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