Leaders wrestle over Rogers Road sewer funding

tgrubb@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2013 

  • The story so far

    The Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood Task Force was formed to create a plan to compensate landfill neighbors. The plan is complicated because some homes are in Carrboro, some in Chapel Hill’s Joint Planning Area and some in the rural buffer, where local governments have agreed not to extend water and sewer lines.

    The two towns’ and Orange County’s governments have tentatively agreed to build a sewer system in the Rogers Road community. At issue is how to pay for it, and which plan to pursue. The task force recommended either a $5.8 million system for 86 homes or a two-phase plan that would cost $3.7 million now for 67 homes and more for 19 remaining homes as the area is developed.

    Chapel Hill leaders raised a third option Thursday that the task force had rejected: a $17.6 million water and sewer district.

    The plans are the latest in a string of water and sewer plans since 2001, when a $650,000 fund was established to extend OWASA water lines to most homes. The county also has a no-fault well repair policy and, last year, set aside $288,000 for water connection fees. Few people have taken advantage of it , largely because of the cost and necessary plumbing upgrades. Other grants were used to connect nine property owners to OWASA water or sewer service.

— Elected leaders got into an angry debate and pointed fingers last week about who should pay to bring sewer lines to the Rogers Road neighborhood.

The project, meant to compensate residents for living next door to the Orange County Landfill for 40 years, came up again at a meeting Thursday night between Orange County, Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Hillsborough leaders also attended the meeting, but left before the Rogers Road discussion.

There are three options for providing sewer service to the historically black Rogers Road community. Two would cost $5.8 million and serve 86 homes, either all at once or in phases. A third option would create a $17.6 million water and sewer district that also would serve parts of northern Chapel Hill.

There are two funding proposals on the table:

• Each government pays according to a 1972 landfill agreement: 43 percent each from Chapel Hill and Orange County, and 14 percent from Carrboro; or

• Each pays for the share of the sewer line within its jurisdiction.

Town Council member Matt Czajkowski pushed for a plan by spring.

“Until we start talking about funding, all we’re doing is talking, and it is about time we stop talking,” he said.

But County Attorney John Roberts has advised the Orange County Board of Commissioners to delay committing to the project until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finishes investigating a 2007 complaint. The EPA started investigating neighbors’ claims of environmental racism this summer, but there is no timetable for a response.

Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils said there is a solution, referring to a letter the UNC Center for Civil Rights wrote to Roberts on behalf of the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association.

In the Nov. 12 letter, UNC center staff member Bethan Eynon said RENA would drop the complaint if the county commits in writing to paying for the construction of a sewer system.

Orange County Commissioners Chairman Barry Jacobs said that may be impossible. The county has to be careful not to incur a hefty settlement or set a precedent for other neighborhoods that might want water and sewer, he said.

“From what we understand, it’s not a give-and-take process with the EPA,” he said.

Another hurdle is extending Chapel Hill’s extraterritorial jurisdiction – the unincorporated area next to the town – to Rogers Road. Chapel Hill is not legally able to contribute taxpayer money to a project outside its jurisdiction.

Extending the ETJ would require the governments to hold a joint public hearing and separate votes.

Finger pointing

The debate veered into angry finger pointing after Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and council member Jim Ward suggested Carrboro should pay more.

The sewer line would make it easier for Carrboro neighborhoods now served by wells and septic systems to tap onto water and sewer lines, they said. That’s Carrboro’s responsibility, because it annexed those homes, they said. The cost would be roughly $1.9 million, more than double Carrboro’s proposed share under the landfill agreement.

Retiring Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton left his seat and walked over to a map hanging from the ceiling. He pointed to the bottom where the sewer line has to come from, he said. Then he jumped up, smacking the top of the map. That’s where Carrboro annexed about 13 homes on Rogers Road in 2005, he said.

Returning to his seat, he paused, pointing both index fingers at Ward. The same line will serve Chapel Hill, attract developers and boost the town’s tax revenues, he said.

“You’re sitting here saying we’re paying for sewer lines going in Carrboro. I’m sitting here paying for sewer lines not going in Carrboro. Tell me the difference,” he said.

That’s not the conversation, Kleinschmidt said. The point is that the governments need ways to recover the cost of building the sewer line, he said.

Chilton said the claim that Carrboro is not paying its share “freaking pisses me off.”

“We agreed on a set of ground rules about how we were going to allocate these costs. We’ve stepped up to the plate. We’re the people that put a large chunk of money on the table, and all I get is this bull---- about how you can put any money in and I’m not putting in enough, and I’m sick of it.”

Carrboro Mayor-elect Lydia Lavelle agreed, however, that there would be long-term benefits for Carrboro and its residents, including herself.

“This is one of the appeals to me of the sewer district, it’s a way to make certain that whenever that property is developed … we recoup from the developer the cost that we put in upfront,” she said.

Each government must approve the final plan for building the system and the funding to pay for it.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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