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Source Water Protection Still Stirring Up Controversy

Marie Geisel joined the Dayton Citizens Water Brigade on Tuesday before a packed plan board meeting.
Lewis Wallace
Marie Geisel joined the Dayton Citizens Water Brigade on Tuesday before a packed plan board meeting.

The debate over Dayton’s source water protection policy is still simmering, although the issues have changed somewhat since the idea of an update to the policy was first floated last summer.

Since the 1980s, the water policy has restricted the amount of hazardous chemicals that can be stored by companies located on or near the city’s well fields, which pump up drinking water for more than 400,000 Dayton-area residents including most of Montgomery County. The Great Miami buried valley aquifer is considered by many to be one of Dayton's greatest assets, but it has been consistently threatened by pollution from old industrial sites, and in some cases the sources of groundwater pollution are still unknown.

An earlier controversy over the specific area to be covered by the drinking water protections is no longer the focus, and a revised proposed zoning map will come before the city plan board within the next couple months. Now, the discussion seems to boil down to a few businesses asking for flexibility against a chorus of people worried about risk.

Small Businesses Say Rule Is Limiting

When Mike Gearhardt bought his industrial building on Troy street, it came with restrictions in the form of a pound limit on chemicals that could harm drinking water. His small machine shop holds about a dozen machines, mostly making parts for airplane engines, and for each one, he has to keep track of how much it holds.

Those restrictions are the backbone of the original policy: the zoning code enacted in 1988 grandfathered in a set amount of chemicals for each site within the Source Water Protection Area, and created and funded a buy-down system to encourage business owners to reduce their inventories. Gearhardt’s machine shop is located just across the river from one of the two wellfields, at the edge of the zoned area. For him and all businesses in the protection zone, new chemicals are a no-no, but some are already allowed millions of pounds. This building, which he owns but shares with another business can have around 14,000. Many buildings are allowed almost zero.

To Gearhardt, it’s arbitrary.

“I think the risk realistically posed from business is miniscule compared to every other risk,” he says, like train cars or pipelines that carry toxins right through here almost daily.He thinks the city’s policies ends up targeting small businesses like his.

He did know about the restrictions when he came, and he was denied a variance in 2005. He sued the city over that, and lost.Now he says he can’t grow without moving, a potentially large expense.

“They wanna regulate but not compensate,” he says of the city.

More Flexibility Proposed

The updated policy proposed by the city would allow what’s called a minor variance, a way for businesses like Gearhardt’s to get approved for up to 10,000 new pounds without a public hearing. The zoning administrator, with vetting from the water and fire departments, would be able to approve those variances on a case-by-case basis.

That idea ended up as the focus of a public hearing on Tuesday before the city plan board.

“I’m concerned that flexibility is a major reason why we’re driving through this and potentially creating some things that we really can’t undo,” said Bill Marvin, a professor and Dayton resident. He argues that the city shouldn’t be making it any easier for companies to store pollutants near the water supply. He was joined by dozens of others, including the owner of Warped Wing brewery, who represented ten Dayton-area craft brewers in opposing any new flexibility for bringing chemicals into the area. The Dayton Citizens Water Brigade as well as the city’s volunteer Environmental Advisory Board spoke up about their concerns about the variance process.

But some, like real estate agent Mark Dlott, stood up and said that since the policy was first put in place, we’ve gotten better at preventing and containing accidents.

“All the business community is asking for is a fair shake, that they be given the opportunity, if they have a specific need, to come forward and demonstrate how they will not create any more risk than is already there,” Dlott said.

Either way, just a few business owners have come forward in public meetings; of the 222 businesses on the list of sites in the current Source Water Protection Area (SWPA), only a few dozen seem to be industrial operations with low pound limits. The proposed revisions would reduce the total number of sites in the restricted areas to 158, leaving behind a fairly small pool of small businesses affected by the limits.


The plan board, in questioning the business arguments presented Tuesday, asked for more evidence of the economic impact of increased flexibility, which the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce agreed to seek out from members. But a 2006 study by Wright State graduate students showed the overall economics of the SWPP up to that point weren't bad: the study compared control groups to show job growth was around the same in and outside the regulated area. From 1992-2004, the study found occupancy rates in the SWPA hovered unchanged around 90 percent. Businesses, on the other hand, say the real value of their property is diminished by the chemical limits.

Water Department Wants Balance

The water department says it’s seeking a balance.

“The philosophy is, not all change is bad,” said Michele Simmons, the city’s environmental manager for water. She says there could be instances where the pound limits don’t make sense, and some change could be made safely.

But the overall goal, she says, is not to relax this policy but to clarify it. Any company that wants to bring more chemicals into the area would still have to apply and be vetted. Simmons also stressed that even in the event of an accident, the city tests and treats all the water before it goes to tap.

“These proposed changes are not an economic development tool,” Simmons said in an interview with WYSO. “They are source water protection measures that are being put in place, further defined and codified, and they’re doing that with assistance to business in mind.”

The proposal would also expand some protections: a much longer list of chemicals would be regulated in the SWPA, and the city would have more testing wells to track contaminants in the groundwater.

But before any of that, parts of it have to pass the city plan board before going to the city commission for a vote. This piece addresses how businesses within the SWPA are regulated through zoning, and a second piece considers redrawing the zoning map lines to account for reduced water use since they were last considered. Still a third ordinance that falls under the water department, rather than zoning, will have to pass city commission.

The plan board on Tuesday expressed doubts about the wisdom of a minor variance process, and concluded it needs more information from both sides before revising or voting on part one. The board will reconvene for more discussion on April 14, but public hearing on this issue before the board is closed for now.

More information on the zoning code text amendments currently under consideration is available on the city’s website.

Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.