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October 12, 2005

 

Development firms which have residential projects in the area of the county south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal stuck in the approval pipeline will be able to proceed with them -- provided the firms bear the cost of providing sanitary sewer service.

A short-term plan for starting to extend  the county sewer system into that area, recommended by an environmental engineering consultant, calls for installing a limited amount of pipe and two pumping stations connecting the as-yet-undeveloped second 'water farm' northeast of Middletown.

Meanwhile, the consultant recommends that county government conduct a comprehensive professional evaluation of at least eight suggested alternatives to the grandiose plan put forth by the previous Tom Gordon administration and come up with a new long-range plan to meet the needs of what everyone agrees is the county's primary growth area. The alternatives range from discharging more treated effluent into Appoquinimink Creek or the Delaware River to using community septic systems.

Together, it is agreed, the two plans will provide for the most extensive -- and expensive -- public works project in the history of New Castle County.

The short-term plan would take four to eight years and cost an estimated $15 million to $20 million.

There is no telling at this stage what the long-range one will cost, but consultant James Shelton, of the Wilmington office of White Plains, N.Y.-based Malcolm Pirnie, said the alternatives would result in 'savings' of up to $80 million in capital costs and $250 million in operating costs over the course of the 40-year life expectancy of the new infrastructure.

Continuing with the Gordon plan -- which, officially, is still on the table -- "would be the worst-case scenario," Shelton said.

The Gordon administration attached a $100 million pricetag to its plan, but Shelton told County Council's special services committee on Oct. 11 that a more realistic figure is at least double that, without providing for inflation or  including the cost of property the county would have to require to process the sewage and dispose of the treated effluent.

"The biggest problem is that it's a partial plan," he said.

County Executive Christopher Coons -- who repeatedly referred to the Gordon plan as something he "inherited" from the previous administration -- did not specifically accept the Malcolm Pirnie recommendations, but clearly indicated that he regarded them as a starting point to, in his words, "begin working toward responsible solutions" to the problem of providing for anticipated and desired growth.

He said deciding upon a specific course of action will await response to a series of public meetings with affected interests, including developers, the business community, civic associations and residents. He said implementation will require some legislative action by County Council but did not specify what that would be.

At a press briefing before the Council committee meeting, he said he would like to "get started before the end of the year" on whatever is decided upon.

Looking beyond the short-term plan, Coons indicated that his current thinking is to have developers -- and ultimately their house-buying customers -- bear much of the cost of the new infrastructure. The alternative would be to pay for it by bonded debt which would have to be financed by taxes or sewer fees imposed on all county residents.

Coons said that soon after taking office last January, he  decided to halt any further work related to the Gordon administration plan and to hire Malcolm Pirnie to take a fresh and independent look at it. The firm has a national reputation in its field.

The Coons administration also is taking a fresh look at several previously authorized capital projects which have not been begun and possibly never will be.

At the committee meeting Councilwoman Patty Powell noted that the Malcolm Pirnie contract is for $500,000 and questioned why she and her Council colleagues were previously unaware of it.  Powell represents part of the affected area. Richard Przywara, general manager of the Department of Special Services, said that it was publicly advertised and bid and, as such, did not require Council approval.

Coons said the county will keep its commitments to provide sewage service for new schools in the Appoquinimink and New Castle County Vocational Districts.

Shelton said the decision to split project planning into short- and long-range components was done "to buy time" while the more extensive and complex scheme is being put together. The intent was "to break the logjam and let [some] development move forward while we decide what the long-term plan will be," he said.

There are 39,000 acres in the unincorporated part of the affected area of which about 25% has been developed and another 10% is 'protected' from development in various ways.

There  are plans to build  about 8,000 houses in various stages of the land use approval process, he said. "Currently available and uncommitted [sewage treatment] capacity will only hand a small  fraction of [that]," he added.

How to provide for the difference and meet future demand requires a near-complete makeover of the original plan, he said. "We're doing this to support development in the area. ... The current plan sort of hopes the future will work itself out."

 

2005. All rights reserved.

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