Recent flooding should focus attention on a glaring but ignored aspect of metro Atlanta’s watershed management: Residential communities and governments are dodging their respective responsibilities to maintain storm water runoff systems.
The area north of Atlanta along Ga. 400 has developed rapidly in the last 25 years. There are residential subdivisions along the corridor in north Fulton County and south Forsyth County that are now maturing in age. These older subdivisions are now beginning to experience the consequences of poor planning associated with their storm sewers and infrastructure.
The developers have turned over the common areas of the subdivisions to associations. Associations are doing everything they can to avoid the financial and legal responsibility of storm sewer management, leading to an unanswered question: Who is responsible for private association infrastructure maintenance when the developer is gone?
Local governments are refusing the financial burden of managing the systems in these private developments because they do not want to increase taxes. This theme is repeating itself in the relatively young north Fulton municipalities of Alpharetta, Milton and Johns Creek as well as in Cumming in Forsyth County.
The problem that homeowners, associations, counties and municipalities face is that the problem cannot be ignored. Federal and state laws place the burden of watershed management on local jurisdictions. But the affected local jurisdictions have responded by implementing storm water maintenance requirements that place the burden on associations.
Associations are not responding lawfully. Due to a lack of professional assistance and resources, most association boards are not motivated to take these requirements seriously.
At the same time the state and local governments have assigned watershed management responsibilities to private subdivision associations, the associations — due to ignorance, their desire to fund pools and clubhouses over storm water sewers and/or their outright defiance of the law — have amended their declarations and covenants to avoid requirements that they maintain the storm sewers and detention ponds in their developments. The covenants place the associations in direct contravention of the goals and objectives of federal, state and local laws.
Local governments in turn are not enforcing the laws against the associations due to fears of political fallout, particularly when larger subdivisions are involved. These areas have enough members to affect the composition of local councils and boards of commissioners. Remarkably, some of the same councils and boards often trumpet their water management and environmental programs as the nation’s best.
Most people are apathetic. Since North Georgia has not lacked for water resources and undeveloped natural areas in the past, there is little effective leadership in the area of watershed management. Local governments in the area are delaying storm sewer utility programs and shifting their priority to budget cutting. While expected for an issue that does not draw much public attention, it contradicts political calls for solutions to Georgia’s water problem.
The problem is storm water management programs are tightly linked to water resource issues. Trout fishermen, environmentalists and homeowners with deteriorating detention ponds in their backyards should not be the only people worried about watershed management.
The solution to supplying Georgia’s future water needs lies in effective leadership on water resources. State and local representatives, many of whom are making new, aggressive calls for water reservoirs, need to realize that watershed management is a crucial component to solutions to water scarcity.
Stuart Teague, an attorney, lives in Big Canoe.
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