August 2006 Highlights

Spills, signs, and stormwater were among the more interesting city issues on tap during August.

Fuel spill: The city was hit by a fairly major spill of diesel fuel into Bowen Branch in the northeastern part of town on August 17. After neighbors complained of a strong odor, city investigators discovered a leaking underground pipe at a private industrial site on Glade Avenue. The leaking diesel fuel had saturated surrounding soil, escaped into a storm drain, and flowed into the stream. About 7,500 gallons of fuel were involved. Upon determining the source of the problem, the ruptured lines were cut off and emergency clean-up started. City and state agencies are cooperating to oversee the clean-up and consider further enforcement actions.

The one major point on which city response broke down was in public notification. Neighbors were not officially notified of the nature of the problem and the need to keep children and pets out of the stream until days later. This is especially frustrating because city emergency response policies were strengthened just two years ago to deal with problems precisely like this one. Those public notice requirements were updated following two separate industrial spill incidents in 2002, one near Mission Road and the other into Peters Creek. The Mission Road incident involved an acid spill which escaped onto private property and seriously injured a family pet. We were fortunate that no children were injured. I followed up on the gap in public notice policies at that time, until the improved notice requirements were adopted.

The failure during this most recent incident to follow the city’s neighborhood notification policy is not acceptable and must be corrected in the future. New City Manager Lee Garrity agrees and has convened department heads to ensure that staff clarify who is responsible for the required public notices and how they will be carried out. The City Council will hear further reports on this matter in September.

Illegal roadside signs: The signs promise to "Stop Foreclosure!" or give you a great deal on mattresses. They’re the streetside equivalent of internet pop-up ads, and they make our city a less attractive and livable community. The problem of unsightly illegal sign-posting on utility poles and public rights-of-way received substantial attention during August. These visual intrusions into our neighborhoods are certainly not the city’s biggest problem, but they’ve been a nagging concern to many of my constituents for years. I call them "litter-on-a-stick", and lately the problem has been growing worse in two respects. First, as city clean-up crews have been sweeping major intersections more frequently, the midnight sign-posters have been pushing further up residential streets into neighborhoods. Second, they’ve been making it tougher to clean up their mess by nailing signs so high onto utility poles that they can’t be brought down without stepladders or long-handled tools. Merely having city staff periodically take down the signs is expensive in staff time and fails to deter repeated violations.

I raised the issue to the City Council’s general government committee in August, and my colleagues agreed to ask for a report from our staff on options to better enforce our sign ordinance. (I’m not trying here to make more types of signs illegal, but just to better enforce the rules we already have.) Staff from Zoning Inspections and Code Enforcement will report back to our September 12 committee meeting on options we can consider for this task.

Stormwater runoff problems: Stormwater runoff problems have been a major concern for many city residents for years. This problem area too has demanded increased attention as more development increases paved surfaces, and greater runoff results from any given amount of rainfall. Thunderstorms and a passing tropical storm during August brought further examples to the fore. Many of you will have seen news coverage of one case involving a collapsed culvert near Knollwood Street. That was a case in which the culvert was entirely on private property, but potentially impacted both downstream property owners and the stream crossing under Hawthorne Road. One downstream property owner had been complaining about the potential risk to his property for some time, and the city was in the process of requiring the weakened culvert’s owner to address the problem at the time of its partial collapse. When that took place, the city moved in its own heavy equipment to remove the debris from the stream and take out the rest of the weakened culvert. The risk from that problem has now been removed, but at the cost of about $20,000 in public expense.

The city’s challenges in getting to that point illustrated some inter-related problems. First, the maintenance of private pipes and culverts on private property is the responsibility of the property owner. The city is responsible for maintaining public stormwater pipes and street crossings. Except in the case of a clear emergency situation, the city must go through an extended notice and hearing procedure when dealing with a problem which is entirely on private property, when the landowner is unwilling or unable to address the problem. (Working through the legal process in such cases takes time and can be frustrating. It seems that everyone approves of due process of law when it applies to them, but not when it applies to a neighbor who’s acting—or not acting—in a way that they dislike.)

Second, fixing such problems is often expensive. In many cases, there is city financial help available even when the problem is located entirely on private property. However, in those cases the landowner must seek that help and agree to pay part of the expense in order to get the assistance. And, of course, the city’s share of those costs, as well as the total cost when the problem is on public property, comes out of our tax dollars. We face a backlog of decades’ worth of stormwater infrastructure improvement needs around the city, on the order of tens of millions of dollars.

Third, determining responsibility for the increased runoff itself can be difficult, especially when it appears to increase gradually over time from a series of small increases from multiple sources. Winston-Salem (like many other cities) is making progress in better anticipating the stormwater management needs of larger developments, and building prevention into new development plan requirements. However, this is a challenging process in which mistakes are still too easy to make and expensive to correct.

I will continue to take an active role in improving our stormwater management policies. I encourage all interested citizens to learn more about this issue area and get involved in the shaping of these important decisions.

Annexation to take effect: The N.C. Supreme Court during August rejected the final challenge to the Winston-Salem annexations approved during 2003. As a result, they will take effect as of September 30. If you have friends or colleagues who live in the areas which will be coming into the city at that time, please help spread the word that they are invited to call the city with any questions they may have about the transition, at 727-8000. As of September 30, Winston-Salem’s total population will become about 228,000—just a little smaller than Greensboro (233,000) and a little larger than Durham (204,000). All of the city’s eight council wards will need to grow as a result, and I will expect to welcome some additional neighborhoods into the Southwest Ward at that time.

City receives employment award: I’m very pleased that the City of Winston-Salem was recognized in August as one of four local "Excellence in Employment" award recipients for 2006. The awards were made by the local branch of the Salvation Army for strong participation in their Community Correction Center efforts to find employment for ex-offenders returning from their sentences. Individuals participating in that program are guided and supervised while they reintegrate as constructive working members of the community. Successful work programs for ex-offenders are critical to controlling repeated criminal behavior, preventing homelessness, and reducing domestic violence. The other employers recognized by the 2006 awards were Winston Steel & Stair Company, Red Lobster restaurant, and Sweet Potatoes restaurant.