Stormwater Symbiosis: A Look at the Bloomingdale Rebate Program as a Successful Example of Public-Private-Civil Society Partnership
Mutually Beneficial Relationships Flourish
Institutions that embody symbiotic relationships between public, private, and civil society sectors have proven to be a successful model for the management of water resources across the globe. Their cooperative approach brings together a range of partners that can accommodate diverse community needs in a way that is transparent, inclusive, and adaptable. The RiverSmart Homes Program in Washington, DC is one example of this type of partnership. Initiated and funded by the District Department of Energy and Environment (public), the program relies on local contractors for project design and installation (private), and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay for program administration and implementation (civil society). Not only has this collaborative structure helped to set the program apart from other municipal stormwater programs, but it continues to yield high rates of participation and multi-stakeholder benefits.
The program addresses stormwater challenges in Washington, DC and pollution in the Chesapeake Bay by engaging local communities to contribute to the solution. Lauren Linville, a Watershed Protection Specialist at the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and grant manager for the RiverSmart Homes Program, points out, “stormwater runoff is the only source of pollution that is actually growing in the Chesapeake Bay region, instead of decreasing.” The RiverSmart Homes Program tackles this problem by providing financial incentives to homeowners to install projects (such as rain barrels, rain gardens, and permeable pavers) that keep stormwater on their properties and out of our city streets, sewers, and waterways.
The Bloomingdale Rebate Program, a subcomponent of the over-arching RiverSmart Homes Program (RSH), started as a pilot in 2014, to test a new homeowner rebate incentive in a small and targeted part of DC, plagued with historic flooding. For the city, the program is a way to leverage residential participation in solving a problem that affects everyone. It’s focused entirely on replacing impervious surface with vegetation or permeable pavers. To-date, the Bloomingdale program has reduced the amount of hard surface in the Bloomingdale Sewershed by over 17,800 square feet, capturing tens of thousands of gallons of stormwater and providing more than $170,000 in rebates to property-owners.
As the third year of the Bloomingdale Rebate Program winds down, I decided to look back and see what has been accomplished over the course of its brief existence. Through my investigation and conversations with program stakeholders, I found that the public-private-civil society partnership has allowed for five important factors to success.
1. Multiple Drivers for Stakeholder Participation
There are many different motivations that bring participants to the program. For property-owners, the program provides financial support toward a product that both addresses drainage concerns and beautifies their space. During the first year of the program, Matt McHugh and Chris Hinders installed a permeable paver driveway and patio at their home. Prior to learning about the program, they had a concrete driveway that they wanted to replace and were surrounded by three neighboring concrete driveways that sloped towards their house. Every time it rained, water was running straight towards their foundation. “Now, our permeable paver driveway is absorbing all of that water. We wanted to do some hardscaping for aesthetic purposes and we had a problem with runoff so it was a solution to both. To address all of that plus receive the rebate back was such a great incentive. It’s really beautiful. We love it,” report McHugh and Hinders.
Their contractor, Mike Walters, partner and Design Team Lead for First Impression Hardscapes, joined the RiverSmart Homes Program when it started in 2009. He continues to participate because he wants “to further green infrastructure projects and help educate homeowners about ways they can participate while at the same time improving their surroundings.” One of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s (the Alliance) goals is to boost the green infrastructure sector regionally by providing trainings to local contractors and work opportunities through participation in the program. Before joining the program, the staff of First Impression Hardscapes would go into a project not really pushing for a permeable design over a traditional paver design. But as Walters explains, “since we’ve seen how well they perform and how well it’s grown our business, we now go into a project with a permeable first mindset and everything else follows after that (if the project fits the criteria).” The numbers speak for themselves. First Impression Hardscapes installs about 100 permeable paver projects each year, with a little less than half of those occurring in Bloomingdale through the rebate program. Walters has even received referrals outside the District from RiverSmart homeowners inside the District who have worked with him to install paver projects. He and other participating contractors are able to bring clients unaware of the rebate opportunity into the program. Walters explains, “while I’m there, I give homeowners education on stormwater and get them excited about it. It’s beneficial for me to spend that time and they get excited about it because they feed off my passion for it. It’s something to get excited about because they’re making their yard look beautiful and getting a rebate for it, not to mention having a local impact to do something they were going to do in the first place . . . that’s my favorite part.” For Walters and other contractors alike, the drivers for participation go beyond an increase in business.
2. Various Avenues for Voluntary Entry into the Program
Participants come to the program from several different directions and it is entirely voluntary. For homeowners McHugh and Hinders, it was their contractor who introduced them to the program. Other homeowners have come to the program through a DOEE stormwater audit via the RSH grant program, while others still have seen the colorful door hangers created by the Alliance or read about it in the Alliance newsletter. The multiple partners that make this program a reality also provide multiple entry points for participants.
In addition to residential projects, the Bloomingdale program has included large-scale community projects. As Linville explains, “the larger projects were mostly identified by DOEE to maximize stormwater benefit per square foot. At a certain square footage, economies of scale kick in, so we knew finding at least a few large parcels of impervious area and converting those to something pervious would give the District the greatest financial return.” Both projects have served community faith institutions.
Last year, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church was approached by Linville as a potential participant. Their large parking lot was an excellent candidate for the program. At nearly 5000 square feet, it was contributing a tremendous amount of stormwater runoff to its neighbors and surrounding Bloomingdale Sewershed, as Linville learned from a homeowner whose property was next to it. The city wanted to capture more stormwater and the church wanted to address its own drainage issues and repair its parking lot, but lacked the funds. Trustee Claude Gregory, of the church leadership, describes his experience moving through the program and his reflections one year later. “We chose to participate in the program because of the economic benefits, a chance to improve on the appearance of the church property, and to create market value for the church and the surrounding neighborhood within that small radius.” He continues, “we are very pleased with what was achieved and with the rebate.” As a result, “parking has definitely improved and the water flow has also improved.” Church congregants and staff aren’t the only ones who have noticed a difference. “Neighbors have responded, felt like it helped to create value for that neighborhood, and made that neighborhood appreciate [the church] more,” said Gregory.
Another important aspect of the program is voluntary participation. This is key because “every group has an opportunity to do something that will have a really positive impact. I think people are willing to do something, be it a homeowner, a nonprofit, or a contractor, but putting some structure around it, like the structure of an incentive program can help it move along faster. As a regulator, you could force these groups to participate, or you could offer the carrot and see who comes to the table. In our case, we were lucky in that we had groups from all over come to the table,” says Linville. This hybrid between an entirely top-down regulatory model and a completely bottom-up grassroots model provides opportunity for two-way participation.
3. Efficient Division of Tasks
Dividing tasks in a way that enables each institution to do what it does best, allows for greater efficiency than one trying to do everything required to make the program function. This also provides a way to address political, environmental, and social needs with a single program. Says Linville of the collaborative structure, “we rely very heavily on the Alliance to recruit, foster, and maintain relationships with contractors who [are] willing to do these projects.” Walters agrees with Linville on the benefits of the collaborative structure. “Having the Alliance involved helps the process in having a liaison between myself as a contractor, DOEE, and the property-owners. It seems to be more efficient.”
Homeowner Hinders concurs, “I love the idea that that’s how it’s laid out because then it doesn’t place the burden all on one subside. It’s a shared cost where the resident benefits by improving their property, adding to its value and appeal. The city government is able to implement a program and achieve desired results on residential property by adding the rebate and at a smaller cost than doing it outright. They are able to affect a change on private property by granting these benefits and the contractor benefits by getting the business and they’re paid in full. It seems to me that it’s one of the most effective ways to do something.”
4. High Adaptability and Opportunities to Receive Participant Feedback
In an effort to improve the program and synthesize participant feedback, RSH has been continuously evolving since its early days. This is facilitated by the collaborative structure, which opens up many windows for feedback to be received from participants. The Alliance has met with contractors and invited participating homeowners and community institutions to share their suggestions. DOEE recently distributed a survey to thousands of residents requesting information about their experience in the program. Contractors, who have regular interactions with property-owners also share thoughts they have received from their clients. Feedback already received has led to a number meaningful conversations and decisions among program leadership and a series of significant program changes. The most recent took effect on July 15, 2016: the $10 per square foot permeable paver rebate that has been so successful in Bloomingdale is now extended to the entire city.
5. Cooperative Structure that is Community Oriented
Orienting the program towards community relationships is important for many reasons. For the leaders of the most recent large-scale project recipient, Masjid Muhammad, the Nation’s Mosque, the cooperative structure was the primary motivation to participate. Jamal Williams, Real Estate Developer and member of the mosque leadership acknowledged, “we have a history of being an organization that promotes collaboration and partnership, particularly interfaith and with other institutions. When we learned that the program consisted of a public, private, civil society partnership structure, we felt encouraged and compelled to participate, particularly in a program like this that benefits the broader society.”
Masjid Muhammad’s leadership was approached by Linville for a similar parking lot retrofit to that of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. The project, about 4900 square feet, was completed only weeks ago by First Impression Hardscapes. Williams explains, “the initial response from the community was overwhelmingly positive. They thought the process from installation to completion was orderly and the finished product exceptionally beautiful. Some members even ventured to say that the parking lot construction and design quality was executed so well, it should set the standard for our proposed renovation and expansion project. The community also feels a sense of purpose, to be part of something that is contributing to a greater good. It’s encouraging, it says that through collaboration, great things can happen. It inspires everyone to think about collaboration and helps bring people’s consciousness and minds to issues of clean water and environmental sustainability. Community consensus was very important. Once the Imam Talib Shareef introduced the project, there was diligent discussion by the board about the environmental benefits as well as the qualitative and quantitative benefits of the partnership structure. This led to a unanimous response to participate. Prior to construction, announcements were made at our Friday sermons and printed in our weekly community bulletin. The idea of participating in this a program and its purpose was expressed and vocalized.” The voluntary nature of the program afforded an opportunity for the community to conduct an important decision-making process amongst their own community members, raising awareness of the key issues and helping to fulfil program goals.
When asked about the community response to the finish product, Williams elaborated, “the design is so clean and functional that we are now able to designate parking spaces for staff members, and there is a sense of dignity in that. For religious institutions, spending money, particularly for capital improvement projects is a very sensitive issue. So when our community decides to commit to spending funds, it generally sees it as a necessity and doesn’t expect it to have such an effect. For a parking lot to have this kind of impact on the community is unexpected. It literally lifted up the spirits of the community.” It’s become increasingly evident that the impact of these projects has the potential to extend far beyond stormwater management.
Room for Improvement
Despite many successes, there is still plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to program accessibility. Barriers to participation include a lack of information about the program, lack of available funds to cover the associated out-of-pocket costs, and limited space on properties for project installation. Maintenance is another significant challenge. We hope to address these challenges in time and are always open to opportunities for cooperative solutions.
The Changing Tide
The strength in collaborative institutional arrangements is being able to accommodate a diverse set of stakeholders. But is this actually leading to behavior change in a meaningful way? What we know is that given financial and technical assistance, more and more homeowners are choosing to replace impervious surface with pervious surface instead of traditional hardscapes. We have reports of higher numbers of contractors seeing financial, professional, environmental, and community benefits to permeable projects and encouraging their clients inside and outside the city to move in that direction. We’ve heard that retrofitted parking lots at community institutions have been a source of pride and dignity for their leadership and the communities they serve, having effects far beyond expectations and inspiring a new level of respect for common spaces. At the Alliance, we’re seeing more local governments adopt similar program structures throughout the region. All of this suggests that behavior is actually changing and the tide of stormwater management is slowly drifting towards more widespread adoption of public-private-civil society partnerships and symbiotic stormwater relationships.