When was the last time you didn’t hear the term “unfunded mandate” applied to an environmental regulation? After all, it sounds good, makes its exponent sound intelligent, and gets the point across that once more we have a piece of environmental agenda designed to cripple the free-enterprise system. The latest recipient of the charge is Phase II of NPDES, and you can bet you’ll hear plenty more howling on the subject in the coming months and years.

What’s the Beef?

The beef depends on who’s under the gun. Many communities see no hope of achieving compliance within their budgetary limits; others feel that the costs outweigh the benefits. Some communities recognize the overall problem but don’t see themselves sufficiently impacted to divert funding from other more pressing areas of concern. And a few don’t see there’s a problem in the first place. With project developers and contractors, the issue is almost always cost-resistance to shifting the burden to the front end of their projects. So how do we navigate toward a workable solution?

At least part of the problem can be laid at the feet of regulating agencies that seem reluctant to subject to critical (and believable) review just what the costs and benefits of their panaceas are liable to be. It’s hard to ignore the findings of the White House Office of Management and Budget that, in trying to get a handle on costs and benefits of federal regulation, came to a disturbing conclusion: While the uncertainty surrounding the cost of compliance was bad enough, this fuzziness was insignificant compared to the benefit side, where differences of a whopping 5,000% made valid assessment impossible.

Little wonder that citizens of the regulated community feel that regulators treat the public like children. To many this just isn’t good enough, particularly where, as in the case of the stormwater regulations, the stakes can be gargantuan. Certainly the consequences of the business-as-usual approach seem obvious, yet it’s still up to those who establish controls to understand the quids vs. quos well enough to show a favorable difference between them. This is particularly true when you bring mandates down to local and even site-specific levels. A good starting point for getting public buy-in to regulations at all levels is with a more businesslike approach to assessing costs and benefits.

Stop Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

While I believe that regulators do have a responsibility for preparing a case for their programs, I don’t think that’s the real issue. It’s a matter of equity. How fair is it that you and I get to pay for the remediation of projects from which we receive no benefit? Suppose my Uncle Guido wants to pick up stakes in Italy, emigrate to the US, and build a house on a hillside overlooking my town. That’s fine with me, but if he expects you, me, and the rest of the public to underwrite a portion of a known burden on an already heavily impacted infrastructure, that’s another matter. Yet isn’t that what’s been happening in the name of growth or progress or any of a dozen other sacrosanct activities? By not establishing and then enforcing regulations to deal with foreseeable consequences of development, aren’t we allowing the Uncle Guidos of this world a one-sided opportunity to dip into our pocketbooks.at least until they get hit with the tax bill to help fix what should have been done right in the first place?

It’s one thing to say that the impacts of large-scale and aggregated urban development might not have been so obvious to our forebears, but to plead ignorance of their consequences after a half century of well-documented evidence is farcical. Cries of anguish from community leaders about the impossibility of changing course notwithstanding, it’s time to help them recognize that they’re every bit as much the victim of their own shortsightedness as is the public at large. 
About the Author

John Trotti

John Trotti is the former Group Editor for Forester Media.