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West Allis tries to sink runoff rules

By Sean Ryan

West Allis planners would rather sacrifice the flood-prevention benefits of new runoff rules than risk losing redevelopment opportunities.

The city, which flooded when storms swept through southeast Wisconsin in 2008 and 2009, is leading the charge against the proposed Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District rules, which are designed to prevent floods. The district’s existing rules set storm water runoff standards for new developments but not for redevelopments and street projects.

“Those are certainly adequate,” said Michael Lewis, West Allis city engineer, “and my point of view is just to scrap these (revised) rules and keep what we have right now.”

Sewerage district staff members have spent two years writing revisions to the runoff rules with a team of municipal engineers. The revisions would apply runoff standards to demolition, redevelopments and street projects in the 27 municipalities MMSD serves.

The revisions require that, after a project is complete, the amount of runoff coming off a site is reduced by between 10 percent and 20 percent, depending on the size of the site.

MMSD had planned to enact the new rules in 2009 but pushed back the date after communities protested. District planners used the postponement to re-revise the rules.

The latest revision, for instance, lets communities build storm water management systems for multiple properties rather than for each project.

“Really, these revisions are directed at reducing flooding, which these communities, including West Allis, have experienced,” said Tim Bate, MMSD director of planning, research and sustainability.

Still, West Allis opposes the latest revision. John Stibal, the city’s director of development, said the cost, in terms of potential lost development, outweighs the benefit of controlling runoff on redevelopment projects.

West Allis relies solely on redevelopment projects to expand its economy, he said. The MMSD rules would require developers adopt expensive storm water control methods, encouraging developers to pursue projects where the rules do not apply, he said.

“It needs to be more broadly based,” Stibal said of flood control. “If you put it on a particular spot of ground where a business wants to expand, you just give him or her a reason to decide to move out to the suburbs.”

Stibal said he agrees with the district’s intention, but not its methods.

“The problem with their great idea is it negatively impacts the ability to do urban redevelopment,” he said.

Bate said West Allis registered the only rule opposition, and the district will consider more revisions before a meeting with municipal engineers March 18. He would not discuss specific changes but said the goal is consensus.

“We don’t want to be overly regulatory,” Bate said, “but we do want to protect against flooding.”

Lewis said he prefers MMSD’s regional flood-reduction work, which involves buying and preserving green spaces and building flood basins to collect water.

West Allis also is studying flooding, he said. The city plans to hire an engineer to study flooding in areas where storm and sanitary sewers have backed up during heavy rain. Those approaches are better than mandates, he said.

Lewis and Stibal said the runoff rule revisions would not prevent floods such as those in 2008 and 2009 because the rain was too heavy and rapid during those storms.

“We don’t necessarily have a flooding problem,” Lewis said, “unless we get annihilated.”

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