Groundwater Ordinance Work Session




Review proposed groundwater ordinance  




Tucker, Foley, Davis, Kamptner, Graham






October 27, 2004


ACTION:                         INFORMATION:   X



  ACTION:                       INFORMATION:   











The current proposal for a groundwater ordinance and assessment standards has a long history, including:


·         Groundwater testing standards and the formation of a groundwater committee were explicitly listed as strategies in Chapter 2 of the Comprehensive Plan (1999).

·         The committee was formed in the fall of 2000 based on authorizations from both the Board and Planning Commission.

·         The Committee produced its interim report, Underground Albemarle, on October 2001.

·         The Planning Commission held five work sessions throughout the process of developing the ordinance and standards, and held two public hearings (June 1 and August 10, 2004) to amend the relevant ordinances.  The Board of Supervisors adopted resolutions of intent to amend the appropriate ordinances to adopt the groundwater program on September 3, 2003 and held four work sessions through the ordinance development process.

·         A public Roundtable review process was held early in 2004.  The groundwater committee considered all public comments and made final recommendations for the groundwater standards.


At the Commission’s August 10, 2004 public hearing and work session, the Commission recommended approval of the program elements.  The program requires amendments to the Water Protection, Zoning, and Subdivision ordinances. 


Attachments A and B are included for the Board’s information and review.  Attachment A is a one-page summary of the proposed four-tier groundwater assessment standards for building permits, subdivision plats, and site plans.  The attachment also outlines the proposed monitoring well network.  Attachment B is a comprehensive packet of information, similar to that distributed with the July 7 Board executive summary, on the proposed program, including the ordinance amendments, standards, groundwater committee history, and information on the Roundtable process. 




Goal 2.2.  Protect and/or preserve the County’s natural resources.




At the Board’s July 7, 2004 work session, several issues were discussed, including the following:


  1. Should the standards be made more stringent by requiring Tier 4 (aquifer and pump testing) for subdivisions plats of a certain size and/or density, and providing for certain plats to be rejected if some threshold of water yield could not be met, as determined by the test? 
  2. Another concern raised was that the proposed program does not necessarily prevent new wells on individual rural lots (not part of a newly platted division) from becoming contaminated from known petroleum releases, as happened in the Red Hill area in the early 1990’s.


Subsequent to the Board’s work session, staff consulted with the groundwater committee and several state agencies to get some feedback on the items above.


Requiring Aquifer Testing for Certain Subdivision Plats

The general consensus of the groundwater committee is to advise against requiring pump/aquifer testing for subdivisions as a standard requirement, at least not at present.  Staff concurs with that recommendation.  The reasons are summarized below:


·         Committee members with technical expertise indicated we do not have the tools or understanding to develop a test that can accurately predict groundwater impacts, both on-site and on neighboring properties, over the long-term. The geology of the Piedmont region is simply too complex and the available data too little to predict defensible results on long-term groundwater impacts. While this data provides a snapshot in time, there is simply not enough information to know how to apply that information to long-term issues. Committee members expressed concern that such a test would be marginally effective at substantial cost when applied to residential uses and the currently proposed ordinance, combined with monitoring wells, provides the best balance of cost versus results.  As such, part of the proposed program is to build knowledge through time using monitoring wells and plans that are conducted.  Realistically, it could take 10 to 20 years of monitoring well data to be in a position where offsite impacts could be reliably predicted.


·         In terms of groundwater test results being used to reject subdivision plats, evidence from other counties indicates that it is extremely difficult to do.  In almost all cases, a development is able to meet a particular numerical standard by drilling enough wells, and it is difficult for the county to prove “inadequacy” of water as a basis to deny a plat.  This issue was addressed in the 2000 report, “Verifying Adequate Groundwater Supplies for Rural Subdivisions”.   It should be noted that the Groundwater Committee, from a very early stage, decided to approach the standards as a vehicle to improve development design and promote good development practices, rather than as a “yes/no” threshold test for approval or denial.  This decision was made because of the evidence from other counties (including a site visit to Loudoun County) and the desire for a program that is defensible and practical.  In addition, there is no express enabling authority in the State’s Subdivision laws that would allow the County to deny a subdivision plat based on available groundwater.  However, the Attorney General issued an opinion in 1997 that the County had the implied authority to require “assurance of an adequate quantity of water for each lot in a subdivision when water is to be provided by individual wells.”    


In response to the concern raised by the Board, staff is recommending that we make a modification to the design standards rather than the ordinance.  In the design standards for Tier 3 groundwater assessments, we have added language that allows staff to require more stringent groundwater assessment data in cases where “special areas of concern, such as an off-site resource of high sensitivity, a previously unknown source of contamination, the size/density of the proposed development, and/or the number/proximity of adjacent existing well users” warrant the additional information. The additional information can include “test wells, monitoring adjacent wells if feasible, and/or other field tests deemed reasonable and appropriate by staff” (see page 13 in the Review Packet).  The reason staff is recommending this approach is that it is flexible and will allow the Groundwater Manager (a funded position, with hiring delayed to match ordinance adoption) to work with the program for a period of time, learn from the assessments that are conducted, and recommend a more structured testing protocol for certain subdivisions in the future.  Staff can come back to the Board one year after the program is adopted to make a recommendation.


Staff recognizes this response may not adequately address Board members’ concerns that future subdivisions may impact wells on neighboring property.  As stated above, without years of data from assessments and monitoring wells, the geology of this area is simply too complex for the ordinance to regulate subdivisions without first analyzing years of good data. If the Board is interested in alternatives that may address this concern, staff offers the following for consideration: 


1.                   After completing a comprehensive study of the County, initiate a downzoning to increase the minimum lot size in areas identified as having limited groundwater availability and/or poor recharge capacity.  Through the earlier groundwater study performed by the County’s consultant, ENSAT Corporation, the County has identified some areas that have poor recharge capacity and areas with noted difficulty in finding an adequate well site.   This data might be used to create a zoning map overlay that would place additional restrictions on development in those areas.    


2.                   Require central well systems for subdivisions beyond a certain number of lots. This has been used by other localities. Given a central well system and flexibility provided in well location, it is possible to locate those wells such that the impacts on neighboring properties are minimized.  Staff recognizes the issue of long-term maintenance of central well systems has proven troublesome in the past.  If this alternative was to be considered, long-term maintenance would need to be addressed as part of central well system requirements.  Given the Board is now considering the possibility of  using central well systems as part of the Rural Area Plan, staff believes this alternative could be considered as part of that review.    


Preventing Contamination of Newly Drilled Wells on Rural Lots

In the early 1990’s, a newly permitted and drilled well in Red Hill quickly became contaminated with petroleum products from a known underground storage tank release.  Subsequently, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had to install a carbon filtration unit at that household, and ten others whose water supplies were contaminated.  As one Board member expressed, this is the type of situation that our groundwater program should try to prevent.  While this type of situation would likely be addressed at the Tier 2 stage (creation of a new lot), Tier 1 (drilling a well prior to receiving a building permit) would not pick it up.  In other words, new wells drilled on parcels of record would not have a County staff review.


The situation described above largely involved coordination between the Virginia Department of Health (the agency that issues permits for wells) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (the agency that investigates leaking tank incidents).  This issue is recognized at the state-level, and the State Code was amended in 1998 to address it (Section 62.1-44.15:4.1).  This Code section requires DEQ to notify VDH of any confirmed release or discharge of oil.  In response to the code language, the two agencies have instituted a method of communication and coordination on underground storage tank investigations.  DEQ updates the leaking tank list on a web site on a periodic basis, and VDH downloads the information for each district and makes it available to the sanitarians who issue well and septic permits.   


The question for the County is whether we want to add another layer of assurance to this process. Obviously, this would involve more staff time to review each well permit (in addition to the other reviews required at the Tier 2 through 4 levels).  


The staff recommendation on this is for the Groundwater Manager to monitor the existing protocol between DEQ and VDH and, after one year, advise the Board on any County actions needed to bolster communication or review to prevent a Red Hill type incident. This would leave the ordinance as it is currently proposed and would simply have staff include this in an update to the Board on the new ordinance. 




Advise staff if the proposed ordinance is considered ready for public hearing and consideration.



Attachment A: Summary of Four-Tier Approach for Building Permits, Plats, and Plans & Long-Term Monitoring Wells

Attachment B: Board of Supervisors Groundwater Information Packet
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