DUNEDIN — There's a lot more to what goes down a storm sewer than what meets the eye.
Therein lies the challenge for city commissioners: trying to adopt and enforce measures to protect their waterways without coming across heavy-handed, particularly when they deal with minor violations involving yard debris.
After more than an hour of discussion, commissioners unanimously approved the adoption of a stormwater enforcement ordinance on first reading July 16 but directed staff to make changes to penalties for minor residential violations before it comes up for final adoption.
City Stormwater Program Coordinator Whitney Marsh talked at length about the different types of discharges that staff has experienced with code violators.
"People have just blatantly put their entire oil cans down the storm drain," Marsh said. "We had a very specific home that we had the sheriff out there. We had our employees out there. And we've pulled out containers of oil. They put it right down the drain. We've pulled out hubcaps. We've pulled out bicycles."
Though they have tried hard to bring compliance from offenders, the violations continue year after year, she said.
The current enforcement process for regulations on discharges is cumbersome. City officials are striving to streamline the process through a matrix of violations and applicable fines and not be willy-nilly in doing so, Marsh said.
The violations include specifications on how each violation is to be cleaned up. The ordinance allows for enforcement on a case-by-case basis, she said.
"What we do realize with all these illicit discharges is they all do lead down to St. Joseph's Sound and to the ocean. So this is why we do make it such an important piece of our code. We feel like it's necessary," Marsh said.
Staff has dealt with a few specific cases that violators are belligerent about city's actions, she said.
"Somehow we have to get through to them because no amount of education is. So maybe the pocketbook will," she said.
Under the ordinance, the first minor violation in the residential category would be a warning to the offender along with education measures. For a second minor violation fines would be $50 a day.
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski alluded to a highly publicized lawsuit filed by a homeowner against the city over code enforcement fines stemming from uncut grass.
"I'm really worried about the residential side. I got visions of cutting grass, OK. You all know what I'm talking about here, and I don't want to inadvertently approve something that's going to take us down the same road," Bujalski said.
City Attorney Tom Trask suggested that for residential violations the fines be levied on a one-time basis, as opposed to daily, whether they are for minor, moderate or major violations.
Commissioners embraced his recommendation and directed staff to incorporate it in the ordinance for further discussion during the second reading Sept. 3.
"I think we want to double check and triple check ourselves when we are passing something new and thinking about cause and effect. We can always make something stricter," Bujalski said.
She also thanked Marsh and Jorge Quintas, Dunedin public works director, for their work on preparing the ordinance.
"Protecting our water quality in a coastal community is paramount," Bujalski said.
Commissioner Heather Gracy also expressed concerns about the penalties for the residential violations, saying "this is just not the right time to fine people in my opinion."
But she later thanked fellow commissioners for being flexible in asking staff to address the fines in that category and agreed the city needs to protect the environment.
"We can absolutely lead on this, but the more we lead, we have to lead with education first," Gracy said.
Commissioner Moe Freaney wasn't opposed to having a one-time fine for a residential violation. But she couldn't sympathize with a violator repeatedly putting a bag of trash with glass into a city waterway.
"How many complaints do we get from people about keeping our waterways clean, and we are working our way to try to do that and we have somebody that just doesn't give a rat's. I'm sorry. Seven hundred and fifty dollars isn't even enough as far as I'm concerned. Really," she said.
The city has an online presentation that provide details of the ordinance, such as the three categories of violators: residential, commercial and active construction.
Examples of major violations include sewage, paints, chemicals and petroleum products. Such materials may impair drainage or structures and require removal of soil due to contamination.
Marsh said that city officials modeled their matrix after the county's regulations.
"Their dollar amounts are much higher than ours and they have seen a drastic reduction in a list of discharges because of this roll out of the matrix they did in their enforcement ordinance," she said. "We do see in the industry a big change when something like this is done."
Discharges of pollutants degrades the ecology of water bodies. Marsh said a lot of algae blooms and fish kills are seen because of such activities.
"I think it's important that if we are environmentally sustainable, then if we are calling that one of our Epic goals, then we got to stand up," Commissioner Deborah Kynes said.