The Prince William Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) recently voted to take a small step forward to strengthen stormwater rules. This includes increasing the distance of swales from the rear of homes from 10 feet to 15 feet. Swales are water conveyances that help prevent flooding and water quality issues downstream. They need to be placed away from houses to prevent drainage problems.

With flooding on the rise and homeowners facing increasing costs to fix problems caused by houses that were built with inadequate stormwater management, it is distressing that Northern Virginia Building Industry Association (NVBIA) Mark Ingrao thinks costs for this relatively minor common-sense improvement to stormwater standards is too expensive. [InsideNova December 20 2019]

In his Op-ed, Mr. Ingrao predicts that the 15-foot standard will increase the cost of new homes and put the American dream of homeownership beyond the reach of working class families. He makes no mention of the financial costs of flooding from inadequate regulations or the community benefits associated with sustainable communities.

Standards that prevent flooding and drainage problems are essential to protect the environment and the quality of local communities, particularly when we’re talking about high density housing in a rapidly growing locality.

The purpose of increasing the distance between a swale and a house is to protect homeowners from drainage problems, wet basements and flooding. It also allows homeowners more use of their backyard (patios, decks, swing sets and other obstructions are not allowed within a swale).

Increasing the distance of swales from the rear of a house can also encourage developers to create building plans that fit the land, as opposed to the current practice of altering the land to fit an unrealistic paper plan. When nature disagrees with these poorly drawn plans, the result is flooding and eroding hillsides.

The lower standard of 12 feet recommended by the NVBIA passes stormwater management costs from developers to homeowners, who would pay to address future problems. The question is not whether we need stronger stormwater standards but rather do we pay upfront to prevent problems or pay a lot more later to fix problems after the fact?

County staff is recommending the 15-foot standard and they have the data to back that up. Between December 2017 and November 2019, the County received 1,947 residential drainage complaints. These included water not draining out of the yard, backyard flooding, basement flooding, and clogged yard inlets.

Between FY16 – FY19, the County issued 6,780 Zoning Approvals for decks and 1,880 for patios. The average length extending from the rear of a house was 14.2 feet for decks and 18.8 feet for patios. The new 15-foot standard allows homeowners room for their decks and patios, and prevents flooding and drainage issues. Where a swale cannot be located 15 feet from the rear of a home, the County has a waiver process to accommodate that special need.

As new development continues to add impervious surfaces and rain events increase, the improved stormwater standards will help prevent drainage and flooding problems that have caused infrastructure damage including roadway collapse. These improved stormwater standards also support Prince William County’s goals to create sustainable and desirable communities. We applaud the BOCS initiative to protect homeowners from flooding and drainage problems as well as improve their ability to use their backyards.


Kim Hosen is the executive director of the Prince William Conservation Alliance.

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