The West Des Moines City Council has dipped at least a big toe into a roily debate about storm water, voting Monday to approve an ordinance that would create storm water management districts in watershed areas.

Sounds simple enough, but it could be several years before a process is worked out for the levying of fees that developers would pay to install culverts and build roads and small bridges in watershed areas.

Although the districts would operate in any watershed area in the city, development that will result from the construction of an interchange at Interstate 80 and the Alice's Road/105th Street corridor in Waukee and West Des Moines triggered the search for a solution.

In West Des Moines, the area lies in the Sugar Creek watershed, an area of rough terrain that has long caught the attention of developers.

Problem is that the rough terrain requires an expensive investment in the infrastructure necessary to transport storm water. Low-lying properties are the most affected. If you own high ground, storm water management isn't a big issue.

The city has proposed having all developers pay a flat fee, regardless of whether their property is high or low.

Duane Wittstock, West Des Moines city engineer, said the city wants an equitable solution to establishing a fee, and that solution could take several years to achieve.

"Developers have found that as we went west, the topography got more rugged," Wittstock said, and meeting the costs of dealing with that terrain also became difficult.
In some cases, it is a matter of developers installing infrastructure or walking away from a development because of costs, he said.
If developers know what their costs will be when launching a project, they will be better prepared to know what to charge future owners for the land.

West Des Moines went forward with creating the storm water, or drainage basin, ordinance after receiving an opinion from the Iowa attorney general's office that the measure would not be unconstitutional.

That opinion is not unanimous, though.

Creighton Cox, executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines, said his organization opposes the ordinance and the levying of fees on developers.

For one thing, the Code of Iowa does not address the creation of storm water districts as it does for districts managing drinking water and sanitary sewers, he said.

In addition, individual developers should negotiate the number and type of improvements, such as culverts, needed on their property, then work out the details of who pays for what with the city, Cox said.

"We think it is an unfair business practice," he said.

Every development property has different needs that should be addressed on an individual basis, Cox said.

The city hopes to assess a single fee based on the number of acres in an area and the amount of storm water infrastructure that needs to be put in place.

"Our council spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was equitable," Wittstock said. "We hope to have an equitable fee so people with flat land don't spend more than people with hill ground. We still have a long ways to go on this. Nothing is easy."