Over many years, LEA has invested enormous effort reviewing proposals and helping developers understand and apply rules, but until recently staff spent little time evaluating how well projects were constructed on the ground. Everyone assumed that developers were following through on their obligations and the plans as approved. Then, thanks to the broken promises of a local developer, LEA discovered “a massive hole in the permitting and review process.”
“This was a big setback for lake protection,” said Colin Holme, LEA’s assistant director. “Everybody was relying on the trust system, but apparently that system has broken down.”
Fortunately, a proven solution is available – third-party inspections.
It all began with a developer who received approval for Phase 1 of a 14-lot subdivision near the Holt Pond Preserve after promising to build, as required by law, a series of stormwater controls. The goal is to insure development doesn’t unleash a flood of stormwater on nearby properties or send sediment, with pollutants such as phosphorous attached, cascading into lakes, rivers or streams.
When the developer sought approval for Phase II, LEA and the Portland Water District discovered the storm controls promised for Phase 1 had not been installed. About the same time, LEA staff found out the same developer had built the first house of a Bridgton subdivision in the middle of the wooded buffer intended to treat and filter stormwater. LEA made it a priority to discover whether this was an isolated case or a widespread problem. Holme and LEA staff members Mary Jewett and Sarah Morrison carefully analyzed 121 major projects (subdivisions and site plans) that have come before planning boards in Harrison, Bridgton and Naples over the last seven years.
The plans were summarized and photographed, and details of stormwater control measures were scrutinized. Of the projects reviewed, 91 had stormwater controls. Some sites were undeveloped, others were posted or gated, but LEA conducted field evaluations at 73 sites. Our findings (see chart) were stunning. One-third of the projects with stormwater controls had problems with project design plans and more than half the sites checked had significant problems on the ground.
“This case made it painfully obvious that no one was routinely monitoring the compliance of stormwater controls on local projects,” Holme said.
So LEA encourages municipal officials to use third-party inspections. For many years the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has required independent third-party inspectors to monitor large developments, such as the Oxford casino, or developments in environmentally sensitive watersheds. DEP’s program spells out the qualifications and duties of inspectors and provides a list of qualified inspectors. Inspectors make weekly reports to DEP staff during construction to report on elements of stormwater controls that are not installed properly.
“At the town level it would make even more sense than at our level, especially if you have somebody who is local, who can drop in to inspect subdivisions,” said Marianne Hubert, senior environmental engineer at DEP.
Municipalities use third-party inspectors (usually engineers or planners) to evaluate plans, inspect sites and document stormwater controls as they are constructed. These inspectors are not town employees, but are paid with funds received from the developer during the project’s permitting process.
All six towns in LEA’s core service area – Bridgton, Denmark, Harrison, Naples, Sweden and Waterford – have ordinances that allow performance bonds and/or hiring of independent consultants for inspection and review. Some municipal subdivision and site plan review ordinances allow use of third-party inspectors for oversight on road construction, utilities and stormwater controls. LEA is developing language that town officials can adapt to specifically authorize third-party review and inspections when necessary.
To find out more about what third-party inspectors do, read a Q&A by Chris Baldwin of the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District.