City manager Mike Melton announced at Tuesday’s Richmond Hill city council meeting that residential water bills may increase after August due to a new state Environmental Protection Division ruling.
Melton said the EPD informed him on Feb. 4 that they are cutting back the allowed amount of water the city can draw from the upper Floridan aquifer.
He also said that the EPD has attached 23 new restrictions to its groundwater use permits which the city must follow, one being a "conservation-based rate structure" which entails raising rates as an incentive for residents to use less water.
Melton said the permit is effective immediately, but the rate structure is due in August – to be reviewed by council before being put in place.
"These restrictions create a lot more questions than answers," said Melton, who was visibly frustrated with the EPD’s ruling. "We’re inevitably going to have to change the rates. This is going to be costly."Water consultant Barry Hall appeared before council and gave a presentation on the new restrictions and on what the city’s options are in dealing with them. He said many of the 23 are "general housekeeping" and only a few of the restrictions are ones that will shake things up a bit. This includes evaluating alternate water sources, implementing outdoor watering schedules, repairing or replacing meters throughout the city and implementing a water loss control program.
Melton said the reduction in allotted water could potentially have a negative effect on new development such as the 2,200 home Richmond Reserve project off Daniel Siding Road.
Hall said that, in comparison to cities its size, Richmond Hill really doesn’t use excess water, but a study has revealed that 16 percent of residents are using an above average amount of water. He also said that the potential rate increase will reflect penalties upon those individuals using too much.
Hall explained a proposed "tiered water rate" which means increasing the rates for that 16 percent of residents as much as 50 to 100 percent while keeping the rates fairly low for the majority remainder.
Kevin Chambers with the EPD said this ruling is being handed down throughout coastal Georgia in conjunction with the "Coastal Georgia Water and Wastewater Permitting Plan for Managing Saltwater Intrusion" which spells out the regulation of water use to stop saltwater intrusion into the aquifer.
Melton said city officials have proven that Richmond Hill and Bryan County are not effecting saltwater intrusion but rather are being penalized because of their close proximity to an area that does – Savannah.
"We spent a lot of money to prove that the city doesn’t have any pressure on this system," Melton said. "We’ve been working with a geologist for years, and he is in the process of publishing a paper on this issue because the EPD has told me they won’t recognize any non-published material."
Melton said the city will continue to state their case to avoid water restrictions but is skeptical of the impact it will have because the EPD is difficult to deal with. Meanwhile, the city has no choice but to comply with all the rulings, Melton said, or "they’ll shut us down" in regard to water use.
In other business:
- A draft of the tree ordinance was presented to council by Planning and Zoning Director Steve Scholar. It calls for 50 percent canopy with all new development, establishes penalties for those not adhering to the ordinance and talks of designating "exceptional trees" that cannot be removed without approval from council – an example was given of the large live oak next to Flash Foods.
Melton said he wants to make the creation of this ordinance "as public a process as possible" and recommended scheduling at least two public hearings before the ordinance reaches its final draft.
- Former city councilman Billy Albritton was unanimously approved to become the newest member of Richmond Hill Planning and Zoning Commission. Mayor Richard Davis swore Albritton in following the vote and called him "a very good worker who tries to add a lot back to our community."
- A request from realtor Linda Barker to erect an 11-foot temporary advertising sign adjacent to Southeastern Bank met with a tie among council members. Floyd Hilliard and Jimmy Hires voted to approve it while Marilyn Hodges and JoAnn Bickley voted to disapprove it. Mayor Davis broke the tie with a vote to approve it.
- Council unanimously agreed to donate four old police cars to the city of Darien.
- Final subdivision plat approval was granted for Holiday Inn owner Sam Patel’s proposed plan to build a Holiday Inn Express behind the existing Holiday Inn on Hwy. 17.
- Council endorsed a grant application for $25,000 to go toward a storm water education program.