McDonald’s Seeks Exemption From Runoff Rules

Reprinted from the Tideland News of Swansboro

SWANSBORO — A building group’s application for a McDonald’s restaurant was taken off the Dec. 18 Swansboro Board of Commissioners agenda, apparently because the company is working on obtaining a state stormwater permit before proceeding.

Garrett Otten of Commercial Site Design of Raleigh is representing the fast-food company. In a telephone interview after the meeting, he declined to discuss specific reasons behind the delay.

“We are still working through permitting,” he said.

Jennifer Holland, town planner, attributed the change to the fact that the project has yet to attain a redevelopment exception to the state’s coastal stormwater rules.

McDonald’s wants to build a restaurant on a 6.5-acre tract at the corner of N.C. 24 and Phillips Loop Road. The lot is the site of a former service station and car wash.

Bacteria in stormwater runoff is the primary cause of shellfish closures in the White Oak River. Photo: N.C. Division of Water Quality.

“They filed the application in October,” said Pat Turner, chairwoman of the Swansboro Planning Board. “The question came up about stormwater runoff. They indicated they were doing what the state required.”

During that discussion, planning board members were concerned that the restaurant would only meet minimum standards, which, in this case, is no treatment of stormwater at all.

Frank Tursi, a planning board member and an assistant director of the N.C. Coastal Federation, an environmental group based in nearby Ocean in Carteret County, said that new state stormwater rules, enacted in 2008, allow an exemption if property is redeveloped.

“A project can’t exceed the amount of built up area that already exists on a site and must provide at least the same level of stormwater controls that currently exist,” Tursi explained.

Because the previous structures on that tract pre-date the state’s stormwater rules, there were no controls.

“It’s a terrible hole in the law,” Tursi said. “We (the federation) complained about it at the time … and Swansboro is seeing the result with this McDonald’s.”

The new stormwater rules are a vast improvement over the flawed regulations that the state first devised in the 1980s, Tursi said. But new rules only apply to new development, he noted. They’re not retroactive.

“If we are truly serious about getting a handle on the bacterial pollution that is plaguing rivers like the White Oak… if we are going to improve the quality of failing water bodies as state and federal laws require… then we are going to have to do something about existing development,” he said.

When it became clear in October that there was no real plan for stormwater treatment at the proposed McDonald’s, the planning board – which is only an advisory board – urged the developer to do more, according to Turner.

“The board actually recommended to them to reconsider … either more pervious surface or landscaping,” she said.

Frank Tursi

Jim Gregson

No vote was taken in October, and Otten came back in November with a plan to capture runoff from about 44 percent of the tract, according to the minutes from the meeting.

“What they did was … turn an (traffic) island into a bio-retention area,” Tursi said. “Some of the lot will drain into the area.”

Such treatment methods rely on soil and plants to soak up rainwater. Exactly how much runoff the area can handle is unclear because the developer did not provide any stormwater engineering, according to Tursi.

Without the exemption, McDonald’s would have to meet the strictest requirements in the stormwater rules because the building site is within a half-mile of shellfish waters. Such projects along the central coast normally have to treat about 3.5 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, according to Jim Gregson, the regional supervisor for the surface water section of the N.C. Division of Water Quality in Wilmington.

Tursi wondered if the McDonald’s project even qualifies for the exemption. The plans that the company presented to the Planning Board show that the company plans to increase the impervious surfaces – pavement, rooftop and other hard constructed surfaces – by about 3,000 square feet.

“The law is very clear,” Tursi said.  “It plainly says that you cannot exceed the impervious surface that is there now to qualify for the exemption.”

However, Gregson said the state makes a provision for that type of development. The exemption could be granted, “As long as they can treat anything that exceeds what was there before,” he said.

But Gregson also said the treatment system installed for that overage must be designed to accommodate the entire area that will drain to it.

So far, DWQ has not received an application from McDonald’s for the exemption, Gregson said.

Swansboro planners, at their November meeting, voted unanimously to recommend approval of the McDonald’s plan. But Tursi admitted that he had misgivings.

“I told them they were doing the bare minimum,” he said last week. “As big as McDonald’s is … a multi-national company … I think they could afford to be a model citizen … spend the money required to assure they do not add to the pollution problems in the White Oak River.”

The way Tursi sees it, Swansboro should take the lead to assure that this type of situation does not continue. Under the state’s current interpretation of the law, much of N.C. 24 through town could be redeveloped without any stormwater controls, he said.

“This is a lesson for the town,” Tursi said. “The general feeling is that stormwater issues are taken care of at the state level. Here is an example of a weakness in the state rules. If Swansboro is serious about trying to help clean up the White Oak River, maybe the town should consider a local ordinance that at least deals with redevelopment. Other towns have.

“Stormwater is a local issue; local governments need to take some of the responsibility.”

About the Author

Jimmy Williams

Jimmy Williams is the editor of the "Tideland News" in Swansboro.