A woman with a cellphone tower on her property will have to pay Halifax Water’s much higher commercial stormwater fee, Nova Scotia’s Utility and Review Board (UARB) ruled this week.
Property owners across HRM, even most outside Halifax Water’s water and sewer service area, pay an annual bill for stormwater services like ditches and culverts.
Joanne Pullin lives on Holland Road in Fletcher’s Lake. In 2018, Pullin’s Halifax Water bill for stormwater rose from $73.35 to $820.51. The next year it rose again, to $1,063.30.
That’s because Halifax Water started billing her as a non-residential, rather than a residential, property owner. That became the utility’s practice for all properties with mixed commercial and residential assessments after the UARB approved its amended regulations in 2017.
Residential property owners pay a tiered rate based on the size of the amount of impervious area on their property, between $0 and $81. Impervious areas include roofs, asphalt, concrete, and gravel. Non-residential properties pay a larger fee calculated with a formula, $0.135 per square metre of impervious area.
Before 2017, the utility decided whether to charge residential or non-residential based on whichever assessment was higher. Now, any property with mixed assessment is charged non-residential.
Pullin’s property is assessed as both commercial and residential, but it’s 94% residential. Pullin used to run a dog daycare on the property and occasionally bred dogs, but the commercial designation is a result of her leasing a portion of the property to Eastlink for a cellphone tower.
The lease includes an access road to the tower, which lies uphill from Pullin’s house. A copy of the lease filed with the UARB shows it covers 10,000 square feet. The rent is redacted. Eastlink has to pay any difference in property taxes and electrical bills from the tower, but the lease makes no mention of stormwater charges.
Unlike Halifax Water, the municipality bills Pullin separately at tax time, with a residential bill for most of the property and a commercial bill for the smaller portion.
Pullin complained to Halifax Water after receiving the larger bill, and she was told that the utility charges any mixed property owner at the commercial rate. Documents filed with the UARB showed the utility had previously investigated whether Pullin was receiving stormwater service, and found that water from the property was flowing into a Halifax Water culvert.
Still unsatisfied with Halifax Water’s justification and now owing nearly $3,000, Pullin appealed the bill in October 2020 to the independent dispute resolution officer (DRO) tasked with settling disputes between Halifax Water and its customers. In March 2021, that DRO, Kulvinder Dhillon, found in Pullin’s favour.
Dhillon wrote that Halifax Water’s practice of billing mixed properties as non-residential isn’t supported by its regulations, and ordered the utility to split Pullin’s bill. That would mean she’d pay the residential rate for 94% of the property and the non-residential rate for 6% of the property.
As Pam Berman reported for the CBC in April, Halifax Water appealed that decision to the UARB. The utility argued that if it was forced to split Pullin’s bill down into residential and non-residential, it would have to do that for about 4,000 other properties. That would leave it with a shortfall of $850,000 annually, which the utility said would have to come from other ratepayers.
The UARB ultimately sided with Halifax Water. In a decision written by board member Roberta Clarke and released on Tuesday, the board found that interpreting the regulations “in any other way would result in a shortfall in revenue on which the stormwater rates charged by Halifax Water were determined, and an unfair burden would be placed on a significantly large number of its customers.”
The regulations don’t even include a definition of residential versus non-residential properties, but the UARB agreed with Halifax Water’s argument that the distinction formed part of the utility’s application to the board that was approved in 2017.
Finding that the distinction is currently unclear to customers, the board ordered Halifax Water “to include explanatory information on its website to clarify how it defines residential and nonresidential customers and how it charges for stormwater service to mixed-use properties.”
“As for Ms. Pullin, the Board finds that Halifax Water has properly billed her for stormwater service and allows Halifax Water’s appeal of the DRO decision. The Board understands that she has not been charged interest on her account while the DRO appeal process was underway, and trusts that has not changed pending this appeal,” Clarke wrote in the decision.
“The Board urges Halifax Water to discuss reasonable payment options with Ms. Pullin.”