Testing the waters: finding private solutions

Posted 3/24/21

Editor’s note: In this fourth installment of our water and sewer infrastructure series, the News + Record explores calls for government intervention in Chatham’s private wastewater treatment …

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Testing the waters: finding private solutions

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wastewater treatment in rural Chatham falls under private development and operations (ultimately accountable to state authorities), but developers and residents alike would like to see a change.
wastewater treatment in rural Chatham falls under private development and operations (ultimately accountable to state authorities), but developers and residents alike would like to see a change.
"Renovated water utility in Boryspil" by World Bank Photo Collection // Creative Commons
Posted

Editor’s note: In this fourth installment of our water and sewer infrastructure series, the News + Record explores calls for government intervention in Chatham’s private wastewater treatment operations.

BRIAR CHAPEL — Government-operated water and sewer systems across Chatham County are complex — but they’re navigable. Intricate partnerships and long-term expansion plans are thoroughly documented and easily accessible.

But sewer infrastructure in unincorporated Chatham is a different story.

As discussed in the first installment of this series, Chatham County operates water systems to supply most Chatham residents outside Siler City and Pittsboro. But the county has no wastewater treatment plants under its purview.

Neither do the county’s municipalities offer sewer management for communities beyond their borders.

Instead, wastewater treatment in rural Chatham falls under private development and operations (ultimately accountable to state authorities), but developers and residents alike would like to see a change.

“It is very difficult to regulate and oversee all of these independently operated treatment facilities,” said Chris Ehrenfeld, owner of Chapel Hill-based development company, Bold Construction, which has frequently operated in Chatham. (Ehrenfeld is also a partner in Chatham Media Group LLC, the owner of the News + Record.)

“A single, larger sewer solution, instead of all of these smaller systems, is going to be easier to regulate and better for the environment,” he said.

Developers and environmentalists are not often on the same side of arguments. But, Ehrenfeld says, sewer shortcomings in Chatham’s unincorporated areas — notably the Briar Chapel community — have fostered a rare instance of unanimity.

“It’s interesting as you have two sides that are typically on opposite sides of the spectrum, pro-development and pro-environment,” he said, “and both are saying the best solution is for the government to help get involved and come up with a larger solution that everybody can use.”

Liz Rolison, a Briar Chapel resident and member of Stop Chatham North — a community non-profit resisting expansion of Briar Chapel’s private wastewater treatment plant — agrees with the thrust of Ehrenfeld’s message.

“The county has to be involved,” she said in a recent meeting of the county’s Environmental Review Advisory Committee.

Rolison advocates for a regional wastewater treatment plant to assume responsibility for new communities in northeast Chatham and to unburden the Briar Chapel facility, which has had multiple sewage leaks in recent years.

“I think the county is in a good position to try to identify a location for it ... We think that with the leadership of the county helping to go after some of the money, and bringing together the right parties, that Chatham County doesn’t have to manage wastewater — they just need to bring together the right people.”

It’s a compelling idea, and well supported by some Chatham residents — but it’s almost certain not to happen.

“They have invested millions in that,” said County Manager Dan LaMontagne of the private sewer systems in northeast Chatham. “Would they love to wash their hands of that and have the county buy it? Maybe. Is the county going to use its dollars to buy the infrastructure they put in there? Probably not.”

To divest areas such as Briar Chapel of their private sewer struggles would cost the county an exorbitant sum, a cost which the county would have to mitigate with increased utility rates across Chatham — not only to residents benefiting from the modified infrastructure.

“Would the public see that as us trying to rescue that private system that got itself in trouble?” LaMontagne said. “I’m not implying that they are in trouble. I’m not implying that they need rescue. But would that be the impression the public has?”

But Rolison and others have not strictly proposed that Chatham buy out the private sewage companies. Rather, the county could buttress wastewater needs with a new regional plant, they say.

“Still unlikely,” LaMontagne responds.

“Municipal-type wastewater in the unincorporated parts of the county would need high density development to make it function properly and to be affordable,” he said.

Wastewater systems require minimum flow rates which require minimum population sizes.

“As you can imagine, you do not want (waste) sitting around idle, so you need flow,” LaMontagne said. “Also, just to get in the more technical side of that, the treatment systems themselves are biological. So, that requires food to feed those microorganisms. So, you need more flow — it all means that you need more flow.”

That may not sound like a problem. After all, isn’t Chatham interested in aggressive real estate development?

Not exactly, at least, not everywhere.

“The county’s comprehensive land use plan, Plan Chatham, has already indicated many areas that we want to remain low density,” LaMontagne said. “So, these two things are opposing each other.”

For a county-operated sewer system to work in areas such as Briar Chapel, Chatham would need to authorize further development to establish the minimum community density standards necessary for a functional plant. Briar Chapel is a “compact residential” area, according to the county’s land use plan. It’s not approved for major expansion.

“And the public has been very clear in Chatham that they want to avoid that,” LaMontagne said. “... Plan Chatham has clearly stressed that we would like development to occur in the towns, that was a major goal of the plan — to focus development on the towns. That’s where you can have higher density; that’s where the infrastructure supports it; that’s why the towns are better equipped to handle development like that.”

For developers in Chatham’s unincorporated areas, then, it’s safe to assume the county will not arrive to shore up wastewater systems any time soon.

“You’d have to have a way to have more density, that’s the long and short of it,” LaMontagne said. “And that would take making sure the roadways can handle it, and making sure that our ordinances allowed higher density, all of those things.”

In other words, more pieces would have to fall in place than it’s realistic to expect.

As for environmentalists frustrated with private wastewater plant operations, LaMontagne suspects they would recant pleas for county-run sewage after studying the ramifications for unincorporated lands.

“Just to be clear, any environmentalist you may be hearing from who would say they would love to see the county take over that wastewater because it’s better than dealing with these private entities,” LaMontagne said, “they would also be the ones that would be opposed to us having a high density in that area.”

Still, LaMontagne emphasizes that he understands where Chathamites are coming from.

“It’s not a knock on anyone, but this is a complex issue,” he said. “People think utilities are very simple, because they happen just automatically. And I love that utilities are that way ... It’s much simpler to say, ‘Oh, just let the county take it over.’ But it can’t really work that way. Overall, providing wastewater has a lot of implications.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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