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September 12, 2008

Supervisors discuss water/sewer connection fees and infrastructure needs with service authority

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The Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA) held a rare joint meeting with the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors on September 10, 2008. Topics included whether the ACSA water and sewer connection fees are high enough to support new construction, an update on the Northfields sewer line, and ways the ACSA can improve communications with both the Board and the Albemarle County Planning Commission.

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Wagner
Don Wagner

ACSA Chairman Don Wagner (Rio) began the meeting by explaining to Supervisors how the County’s water and sewer infrastructure is funded. He explained that developers seek to build new neighborhoods in the growth area, they must submit construction plans to the ACSA for how those lines will be laid. The developer pays to put the pipes in the ground, the ACSA is paid to inspect the new lines, and then the new capacity is turned over to the ACSA for maintenance.  Each time a new home is connected to the system, the homebuilder pays various fees to the ACSA.

“All of these things together amount to a little under $5,000 for a new house,” Wagner said. However, in areas where there is no current ACSA service, the fee is higher at $11,200.

When service is extended to areas that are not currently supporting large amounts of residential units (e.g. Biscuit Run and Hollymead Town Center), Wagner said that ACSA engineers also look at the plans to determine if the lines are large enough to handle future development.  If sewer lines need to be made larger, the ACSA will seek a share of the costs from the developer and then pick up the difference.

Wagner said the County’s goal of encouraging denser development in the growth areas has meant some challenges for system capacity. He noted that the sewer lines originally installed near the airport in the Hollymead area were designed to support light industrial zoning. Because those parcels of land were rezoned to mixed use and the Neighborhood Model District, the authority will be  forced to upgrade its infrastructure.

“Our staff is working with the people that are using that land to get the money to do that from the people who are doing it as opposed to taking it out of [other ratepayer’s] pockets,” Wagner said.
ACSA Board Member John Martin (White Hall) said the ACSA Board of Directors will be looking closely at whether its fees are enough to finance new construction. The ACSA will be conducting a rate study to evaluate the issue further. Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) said it was up for the ACSA to set its own rates.

“But it becomes our business and concern when it has an impact on how the development area is developing and whether that meets our Comprehensive Plan and our goals,” Thomas said.

FUNDING THE NORTHFIELDS EXPANSION

The issue of connection fees also comes up in old County neighborhoods such as the Northfields. When the neighborhood was built in the 1960’s, not all of the homes were connected. Some of the septic fields that serve these houses are now failing.

“One of the difficulties we have is trying to go in and service those small areas because they’re very costly and we can’t recoup the costs, even with the connection fee,” Fern said. The ACSA is currently planning a fourth phase of connecting Northfields to its system, which Fern said would cost $400,000, and that the connection fees would only bring in a quarter of that amount. 

Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) was concerned that homeowners with failing septic fields won’t be able to afford making a one-time payment to connect to the system. He said he’s spoken to homeowners who are afraid to come forward because they can’t make the payment. Slutzky also was concerned the failing septic fields could pose an environmental hazard. He posed a solution.

“Maybe now is the right time to consider completing the sewer network in the growth area,” Slutzky said. “And then developing a funding strategy that is equitable so that the new entrants to the market aren’t getting an advantage that the already existing residents don’t.”  Slutzky suggested several options for how to do that, including allowing existing homeowners to pay for their contribution over a number of years. 

ACSA Board Member Liz Palmer (Samuel Miller) suggested the possibility of creating a service district that would raise an additional property tax on homes that need to be connected to the system. Martin pointed out that 53 homes in Northfields that can connect have chosen to do so.  Wagner added that the ACSA has had to “rescue” many failing homes where either wells or septic fields failed.

“Rescue doesn’t pay for itself, and something’s been paying for that. And we have tried to set our rates so that the rates reflect what we’re paying [the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority],” Wagner said.
Slutzky requested that the ACSA look to solve the problem in a way that was fair to elderly homeowners who cannot afford the connection fee. 

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) said he wasn’t sure if the Board could ask the ACSA to make a decision for something they can’t afford. Wagner said the ACSA Board would take it under advisement, but asked the Board to consider requiring mandatory connections to anyone in the Northfields service area. Supervisor Rooker said he was skeptical about that approach.

“I don’t know if we’re talking about curing a problem for five or ten people by imposing a cost on 150,” Rooker said. 

ACSA staff will prepare a report for the Board of Supervisors on potential ways to fund Northfields Phase 4.

ALBEMARLE PLACE UPDATE

Fern
Gary Fern

Gary Fern updated the Board of Supervisors on the status of sewer capacity upgrades for Albemarle Place. That development has been on hold for many reasons, one of which is a potential lack of capacity. On September 24, ACSA officials will meet with the firm Edens and Avant, which is the current developer of Albemarle Place. The site was rezoned to the Neighborhood Model District in October 2003, but so far only minimal grading work has been done. 

“One of their key components is trying to get sewer from the Albemarle Place site to the Meadowcreek Interceptor,” Fern said. The Meadowcreek Interceptor, which is scheduled for an upgrade next year, runs east-west and feeds the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. The Rivanna Water Sewer Authority will be submitting plans to the Department of Environmental Quality later this year, and Fern said capacity will be there when Albemarle Place is developed.

“The sewer will be ready when they’re ready,” Fern said.

During the conversation, Don Wagner addressed the question of whether the ACSA was prepared for the extra capacity required for Albemarle Place.

“When this question of the size of the sewer line came up, I panicked and went and read what the Service Authority had said,” Wagner said. “And the very first report that came out of the County staff to the Planning Commission and [the Board of Supervisors] wasn’t a red flag, but it certainly was a yellow flag saying it was questionable whether or not there was enough sewer capacity down there.”


TIMELINE FOR PODCAST

  • 1:00 - Don Wagner begins discussion by asking Board if they feel connection fees are adequate
  • 6:30 - Supervisor Rooker questioned whether the fees were high enough
  • 7:30 - Wagner explains how the Hollymead area is served by lines that are too small
  • 9:00 - Supervisor Mallek asks how the cost of upgrading will be spread out
  • 10:00 - Rooker points out that many neighborhoods may not fully build-out if capacity is reached
  • 13:45 - ACSA Member John Martin comments on connection fees
  • 15:00 - Supervisor Thomas says it is up to the ACSA to set its own rates, but only to a point c 
  • 15:45 - Fern begins discussion of connecting portionns of the Northfields neighborhood to the ACSA system 
  • 18:00 - Supervisor Slutzky expresses concern about requiring homeowners to pay full connection fee to connect to ACSA
  • 22:45 - County Attorney Larry Davis explains the legalities of requiring people to connect to sewer systems  v
  • 45:45 - Discussion of Albemarle Place
  • 48:50 - Discussion of North Fork Pump station
  • 53:40 - Discussion of compensation for Board of Directors

Sean Tubbs

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