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May 25, 2007

Authority raises water-sewer rates and considers cost of new development

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20070524acsa1_2 On a day in which the Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA) voted to approve a rate increase, members of the board also discussed who should pay for upgrades to water and sewer lines in the County. In their meeting on May 24, 2007, the board also approved a non-binding preliminary agreement with the Biscuit Run developer regarding who would pay the bill for sewer upgrades to support the largest development in the County’s history.

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The ACSA purchases water and sewer capacity from the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA), and then sells it to county residents on public utilities. If RWSA raises its rates, ACSA generally must pass these increases on to its customers.  The average single-family home consumers 4,800 gallons a month. The total bill will rise from $41.93 a month to $51.71.

At a public hearing before the vote, Glenmore resident Jim Colbaugh expressed concern that the increase was high, considering that proposed capital improvements by the RWSA are not fully reflected in the increase.

"I'm concerned with new development paying it's fair share," Colbaugh said. "I do believe because we're having such a big jump in cost for new capacity, some of that is for existing customers and some of it is for new customers. There ought to be a way to divvy up that expense."

The ACSA's newest board member, Lizbeth Palmer (Samuel Miller District), asked her colleagues if there was a way to do that by using system development fees . "Can we make sure that in some way, that the capital costs of these new developments are really covered?"

The RWSA has several major projects on the books to increase capacity. They include increasing the dam at Ragged Mountain Reservoir to 112 feet, upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant at Observatory Hill, and the construction of a new pipeline between the South Fork Rivanna and Ragged Mountain reservoirs. Earlier this week, RWSA Director Tom Frederick set a "straw date" of 2021 for the construction of the pipeline.

In order to satisfy the community’s 50-year water supply plan, activists like John Martin of Free Union are concerned that's not soon enough. At Thursday's meeting, Martin told the board that the public needs action on these projects in order to satisfy projected growth figures.

ACSA Board Member Robert Larsen (White Hall District) expressed concern about the timing of the South Fork project. "2021 is an eye-opener for me. I hadn't heard that late [a date]. I appreciate that Mr. Martin has brought that to my attention."

This led to some discussion on the ACSA board about its role in the decision-making process about phasing and financing of major capital improvement projects.

The RWSA's board does not include an elected member of the Board of Supervisors, but Albemarle County Executive Bob Tucker is a member. A joint meeting between the RWSA, the ACSA, the Supervisors, and City Council is planned for June to discuss capital projects, but no date has yet been set.

Palmer would like Fern to regularly update the Board of Supervisors. "I know that Gary is talking on a regular basis with the planning staff, but I think it would be a good idea to get something out in the public so that everybody can hear and see that we're working together keeping abreast of the water supply. There's just so much going on."

But ACSA Chair Donald Wagner (Rio District) said having Fern address the Supervisors would usurp the authority of Bob Tucker, who is a member of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority board. "If the Board of Supervisors wants to get a report from somebody, it seems to me that the Board of Supervisors should ask for that report rather than somebody go down and say they want to talk to them." Wagner has been on the board since 1984, and is a principal of Great Eastern Management, the developer of North Pointe.

But Palmer continued with her point. "It's appropriate for the Board of Supervisors to see the head of RWSA and the head of ACSA directly and get updated information in detail." She says the ACSA was set up to manage water and sewer issues, but that the current set-up prevents information from getting to the county's decision-makers. "They have a tendency to wall off water and sewer, and it's going to affect the citizens of this community dramatically over the next twenty years."

But Wagner said the proper place for that is for a ACSA board members to keep their individual supervisor informed. Each member of the Board of Supervisors nominates an appointee to the ACSA. "I don't feel it's appropriate for the Albemarle County Service Authority to tell the Board of Supervisors what they ought to be doing about these issues."

Palmer says her main goal is to reach the public. "I want to make sure the public is informed because there are so many changes taking place."

One of the biggest changes being considered by the County government is the future of the Biscuit Run property, just south of Charlottesville in the county's growth area. Wastewater generated at the new development would flow through the Biscuit Run Trunk Sewer, which discharges into the Moores Creek Interceptor before being treated at the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

On Thursday, the ACSA Board voted 3 to 1 in favor of approving a memorandum of understanding between the Authority and Forest Lodge LLC, Biscuit Run's developers. Under the non-binding preliminary agreements, Forest Lodge will provide improvements to the Biscuit Run Trunk Sewer once its usage surpasses 80% of the peak flow in the pipeline today. The ACSA originally designed and built the "trunk sewer" to handle a "peak flow" of nearly two million gallons of water per day.

When Biscuit Run is fully built, it will need a projected 2,211,250 gpd.  The developers have agreed to be responsible for the financing and design of capacity upgrades. Under the terms of the agreement, the ACSA will have the power to not allow new connections if it feels the capacity is not sufficient.  In addition, the Biscuit Run Trunk Sewer feeds into what is known as the Moores Creek Interceptor.  That sewer line is also expected to require upgrades.  The costs for that upgrade are not know at this time, however a second memorandum outlines the developer’s commitment to pay for an appropriate share of those upgrade costs based on the wastewater flows from Biscuit Run.

Parker was the sole vote against approving the agreements, and was skeptical about whether the agreements were powerful enough.  “I am wondering if we should be requiring money upfront to try to help with this infrastructure costs,” she said.

Steven Blaine, attorney for Forest Lodge, tried to allay Parker’s fears.   “It’s going to be like any other type of utility or infrastructure. If it’s not there and you wish to expand or build, you have to see that it is built as a cost of doing business. The memorandum of understanding puts the developer, owners and the public on notice that the developer will have to pay its fair share, whatever that may be.”

Sean Tubbs

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