Planning for Success: How Collaboration & Community Engagement Yield High-Value Projects in Fairfax County

Fairfax County’s stormwater planning and management program is discussed by Charles Smith, Branch Chief, Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

By: Medessa Burian

Located in the heart of the Washington DC Metropolitan region, Fairfax County, Virginia is predominantly suburban – with urban pockets that house some of the nation’s most prestigious intelligence agencies and rural areas with thousands of acres of protected parkland and biking trails. As one of the area’s most populous jurisdictions, the county is heavily developed. Impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots, and roofs prevent rainwater and melting snow from naturally soaking into the ground. Instead, runoff moves across these hard surfaces carrying trash, pet waste, pesticides, lawn chemicals, and other harmful pollutants to local streams and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. This fast-moving water gouges stream channels, mobilizes sediment, and threatens sensitive aquatic ecosystems.

Similar to many communities in the Bay watershed, a leading driver for Fairfax County’s stormwater management efforts is meeting regulatory requirements, particularly for their municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permit. Stormwater discharges from MS4 storm drains lead directly to local streams, so permittees have a number of requirements to protect both local and Chesapeake Bay water quality.  

Start at the top and work your way down

To begin meeting its regulatory requirements, Fairfax County started in the uplands. “We like to clean water as high in the watershed as possible,” said Charles Smith, Chief, Watershed Projects Implementation Branch, of Fairfax County’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services. The county quickly realized that stream restoration was one of the most efficient ways to reduce their nutrient and sediment loads. “We found out early on, especially with the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, that if we don't fix our streams, we’ll have increasing loads due to the large quantities of water they receive that head downstream,” said Smith. This notion pushed Fairfax to work in the stream valleys, which has proved cost-effective in addressing local TMDLs – an increasingly large driver as the county works to achieve Chesapeake Bay TMDL goals.

Capture it, slow it down, and clean it

While stream restoration is a costly and labor-intensive endeavor, the county also takes simple steps to capture and filter polluted runoff. Standing next to a recently renovated pond by the Fairfax County government building, Smith said they routinely look at new ways to address the stormwater problem. “In this case, we looked at infrastructure that has ponds built to an older standard. Often they are dry ponds that just pass the water through.” Practices such as this are often called “peak shavers” as they shave off a peak of a storm but don't necessarily provide detention or a significant water quality benefits. Smith encourages other jurisdictions to look at improving their older facilities. “For a lower dollar investment – and without even touching the dam or outflow structure – you can re-shape the bottom and add a wetland component. So, when a frequently-recurring storm comes – when that really dirty half-inch flows in – you can clean it through the wetland and shrink the outflow orifice to hold the water a bit longer.”

If you can’t maintain it, don’t build it

Fairfax County places a high emphasis on BMP maintenance. “Working maintenance into the budget is critical,” said Smith. “You have to have the money in place to maintain the systems over time – the pipes, the inlet structures, the ponds….” For Fairfax, stormwater practices are not implemented unless maintenance responsibilities have been identified and agreed upon beforehand. “Maintenance is considered before any new project is put into the ground,” said Smith. “If we work closely with our maintenance staff to think about what it's going to take to maintain those facilities during the design process - maintenance staff, site and equipment accessibility considerations – it will lead to cost savings in the end.” Regular maintenance is necessary for stormwater facilities to function as designed. Depending on the project, maintenance may include mulching, weeding, pruning vegetation, or removing trash and debris. The county budgets for the maintenance and inspection of BMPs installed on public as well as private property. Budget considerations include adequate staff and contractors to perform inspections every five years and to educate owners on how to keep facilities up to current standards and functioning properly.

Tax isn’t a four-letter word

A critical component of Fairfax County’s stormwater program was establishing a stable funding mechanism that was independent of the general fund. While dedicated funding mechanisms can take many forms depending on a community’s need, in Fairfax, it took the form of a tax. The Stormwater Service District is based on the real estate assessed value of commercial and residential properties in the county. Voters supported the Service District, and it was passed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in 2009. “The Board of Supervisors has been tremendously supportive in instituting this tax, which has increased slightly over time,” said Smith. “The tax base is a critical, stable funding source that allows us to run our program – cover administrative costs, construct new practices, and perform all of the maintenance we need to do.”   

Alone we can do so little; together, so much

Partnerships are a critical component of Fairfax County’s stormwater program. The Department of Public Works and Environmental Services collaborates with several entities in the county including schools, parks, and land development services. In some cases, they also work with private entities to provide consultation on stormwater practices and standards. Partnerships generally involve adding value to existing projects. “We install practices that are above and beyond what is required in order to get an additional benefit – to get cleaner water both in terms of nutrient reductions as well as total detention,” said Smith. “When we can use the construction costs partners are already paying, and we add on top things they don't have to do, we are able to reduce our costs because they already have a contractor on-site.”

Fairfax County has also taken a collaborative approach to watershed planning. They began in the early 2000s and adopted 13 watershed plans between 2005 and 2011. The plans include a suite of projects the county uses as a basic foundation for their work. They also receive nominations for their annual work plan from citizens, elected officials, partnering agencies, and ecologists who monitor the streams. Their scoring process includes considerations such as site characteristics, accessibility, utility location, land ownership, maintenance requirements, and equipment needs. The project list is reviewed by several stakeholders to make sure everyone is informed and comfortable with the work plan.

You serve the residents

Another important aspect of Fairfax County’s program is community engagement. Smith feels that regular conversations and communication with residents is one of the most important aspects. “Residents are the backbone of our program in the sense that if we don't have public support, it won't work,” said Smith. “Residents are the ones paying for it, so it’s their projects and their program.” Everything from communicating with residents when inspectors respond to a drainage complaint to letting them know how long a new installation or maintenance project will last helps to build trust and create a sense of ownership.

A pollinator meadow just outside the government office building is one example of the county’s community engagement efforts. When the county realized they could receive credit under their MS4 permit for converting the land to a less runoff prone cover, they transformed the mowed turf to a meadow. With a perennial stream located at the bottom of the hill, the project restored the buffer and became a resource protection area for the stream. The project design and installation was a collaborative effort between the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, the Board of Supervisors, residents, and local nonprofit groups. When it came time to maintain the meadow, the county’s Public Information Officer and landscape architect invited community members to come pick the flowers and plant the seeds at home after the flowers died. The event was well attended and residents were able to learn why meadows sometimes have to be mowed to promote plant health. The event helped promote county stormwater projects, engaged stakeholders, and educated the public.

“The thing we always love to hear is residents thanking us for listening, calling them back, or for contacting them in the first place,” said Smith. “Keeping the residents involved is really what sells our program – letting them participate whenever we can, and having them own a project and promote it for us.”  Sometimes this means addressing neighborhood needs and concerns. “Even though it may not be a top priority project when scored,” noted Smith, “sometimes that's the project you need to do to make sure residents feel listened to and valued.”

To learn more about Fairfax County’s stormwater management efforts, visit the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services website at

Photo of Charles Smith
Charles Smith