Community gardens overcharged for water runoff

New ordinances allow gardens to apply for reimbursement and exemption from fees.

The Temple Community Garden, on Diamond and Carlisle streets, has been overcharged for its stormwater bill. KAIT MOORE FOR THE TEMPLE NEWS

Although the lot changed to a green space run by the Temple Garden Club two years ago, the city never updated the map from its status as a storefront property with a parking lot. The lot was incorrectly documented with an area of 16,289 impervious square feet of the total 23,500-square-foot lot.

The Philadelphia Water Department determines stormwater fees based on the amount of impervious surface that makes up a lot. Impervious surface is defined by the PWD as non-porous, like a parking lot or a building, because it does not absorb rainwater.

The water department does not update its stormwater billing map whenever a lot changes its status, so organizations like Temple’s community garden and other gardens are overcharged for their monthly stormwater bills.

For the incorrect amount of impervious surface documented on the PWD stormwater billing map, Temple paid nearly $8,700 total in monthly fees for a garden that has been absorbing rainfall since Fall 2014.

In a public testimony to the PWD, Jenny Greenberg, the executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, said there are more than 500 community gardens throughout the city.

“[They] have transformed vacant, trash-filled lots into beautiful and productive spaces,” she said.

Gardens and lots like Temple’s can appeal for reimbursement for incorrect fees by Jan. 1, 2018 for charges that date before Dec. 21, 2016, said Joanne Dahme, the general manager of public affairs at the water department.

The department will determine if a garden can be reimbursed based on how the property is used, she said.

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Kurt Bresser, the director of utilities and energy management at Temple, said all stormwater charges, correct or incorrect, were paid through Temple’s central utilities budget, and any money the PWD returned would go back to that account.

The Water, Wastewater and Storm Water Rate Board also passed an ordinance in December which exempts qualifying gardens from stormwater fees starting in 2017. The exemption will not happen automatically. Gardens must file a request for exemption with the water department.

For gardens to qualify for exemption, they must meet certain criteria defined in a memorandum by Bernard Brunwasser, the chair of the Water Rate Board. These criteria include that gardens applying must use their property for public benefit while growing crops. The property must also absorb at least 80 percent of rainfall.

The department estimates that the total lost revenue based on the exemption for the current rate period, which began in July 2016 and will end June 2018, will total $94,864. According to its website, the total loss of revenue is small enough that all other existing stormwater rates will not increase for other customers.

In 2010, the PWD implemented the stormwater fee for all lots in the city for the first time.

“[The stormwater fee] worked out really well for a lot of properties,” she added. “[Parking lots] are big properties and completely impervious. … So we are collecting [the water]and cleaning it.”

For nonprofits like the Norris Square Neighborhood Project and the Village of Arts and Humanities, which run urban gardens in North Philadelphia, the new fees added a burden on their budgets.

Community gardens, unlike parking lots, absorb rainfall that would otherwise run into Philadelphia’s combined rainwater and sewer system. The new fee charged them for water runoff that was actually nonexistent.

“Why is this fee being assessed on gardens when gardens are managing the storm waters?” said Amy Laura Cahn, the staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center who represented the two gardens while they worked to lower the fees. “These are not easy funds to come by.”

In 2012, Cahn, the Norris Square Neighborhood Project and The Village of Arts and Humanities reached out to PWD explaining they couldn’t afford the fees, Dahme said.

PWD worked closely alongside the two gardens, the Philadelphia Horticulture Society and the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, which both represent small gardens, to suspend those fees.

On June 28, 2016 Mayor Jim Kenney signed an ordinance drafted by the community garden representatives and Councilwoman Maria Sanchez that allows community gardens to be exempt from the stormwater fees if the criteria is met. It passed on Dec. 21.

In the hearing, representatives of community gardens said a 100 percent discount would allow funding to go toward programs that benefit the community while publicly promoting green stormwater management in Philadelphia.

Kaitlyn Moore can be reached at

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