By Carol Vaughn and Stefanie Jackson —
A hearing about a petition to add Accomack County to the Hampton Roads Sanitation District is scheduled for Oct. 2 at 9:30 a.m. in Accomack County Circuit Court in Accomac.
A similar hearing for Northampton County will be held Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. in Northampton County Circuit Court in Eastville.
Becoming part of the sanitation district would pave the way for HRSD to construct a $24 million sewer line along the railroad right of way from Accomac to Nassawadox, in the first of three planned phases. The HRSD would foot the bill to build and maintain the sewer line.
Flows would go to the Onancock wastewater treatment plant.
HRSD likely would take over ownership and operation of the Onancock wastewater treatment facility.
Onancock’s plant at the time of a 2019 feasibility study was treating around 230,000 gallons per day, but has a capacity of 750,000 gallons per day.
A proposed second phase would extend the line north to serve Chincoteague. A third phase would extend the line south of Nassawadox.
Two Northampton towns in particular could benefit from joining the Hampton Roads Sanitation District – Exmore and Nassawadox.
Exmore could “get out of the sewer business” by turning over its wastewater collection and treatment system to HRSD to upgrade, operate, and maintain. HRSD would also set prices and bill customers.
Exmore is seeking to expand its sewer system so it can offer service to the entire town, up to 900 households and businesses. It is currently limited to serving about 350 customers due to a Virginia Department of Health (VDH) consent order.
But HRSD only deals with existing sewer systems – it does not expand them – and Exmore would not qualify for state grants or no-interest loans to fund a sewer expansion with HRSD in charge of the system, which might be a deal-breaker for the town.
Riverside Health System still owns and operates the only sewer system in Nassawadox, even though Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital moved to Onley about three years ago. Other Hospital Avenue facilities still rely on the sewer system.
The Riverside-owned sewer system is also under a VDH consent order that would become HRSD’s responsibility if it takes over the sewer system.
Nassawadox, like Exmore, could expand the sewer system to serve more customers, but it also would come with a hefty price that the town likely couldn’t afford.
The court will receive and hear any objections to the petition at the hearings.
“All such objections shall be made in writing, in person or by attorney, and filed with the court at or before the time or adjourned time” of the hearing, according to a legal advertisement.
The instructions come from Section 48 of the HRSD Enabling Act.
The language means a person must submit any objection in writing and file it with the court before the hearing or bring the written comments to the court for the hearing, according to Accomack County Administrator Mike Mason.
The hearings originally were set for March, but were postponed when courts closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ken Dufty, of Wardtown, has raised objections to HRSD, including its ever-increasing rates. He submitted a letter to Northampton Circuit Court Clerk Traci Johnson Sept. 18 asking that the Oct. 2 HRSD hearing be postponed “until the public is more fully informed” about HRSD’s proposal.
Dufty also asserted that public notice of the hearing was inadequate because it “offers no information on how citizens and business owners can submit comments to the court, aside from physically attending the public hearing.”
He requested that an additional public notice be posted including a mailing address and email address for submitting written comments, as well as contact information for the clerk of court.
As of press time, the hearing in Northampton County remained scheduled for Oct. 2.
The Accomack County Board of Supervisors in December adopted a resolution authorizing a petition to the Circuit Court that the county be added to the Hampton Roads Sanitation District.
Northampton County’s board of supervisors adoped a similar resolution the same month.
The HRSD Commission in January adopted resolutions to file the petitions in Circuit Court and request a public hearing and subsequent court order.
Inclusion in HRSD gives localities the option, but not the obligation, to transfer ownership of their public sewer systems to HRSD, along with the responsibility to run, maintain, and upgrade the systems and bill customers.
The sanitation district was created in 1940 by the General Assembly as a political subdivision to consolidate the collection and treatment of sewage. The full enabling legislation can be read at https://law.lis.virginia.gov/authorities/hampton-roads-sanitation-district-commission/
At present, it serves all Hampton Roads cities as well as smaller communities on the Middle Peninsula and Surry.
The district has around 1.7 million customers, or about 20% of Virginians, Ted Henifin, general manager of the HRSD, said at a meeting in August 2019.
The feasibility study, which projected sewer needs on the Shore through 2050, was conducted by HRSD and came about after a meeting of Eastern Shore mayors called by then-Rep. Scott Taylor in 2018, where officials were asked about infrastructure priorities for federal funding.
“What it means to me is economic development,” said Steve Johnsen, chairman of a committee of around 30 who worked on the plan. Johnsen was speaking at an August 2019 meeting in Onley where results of the study were presented.
“What it also means is good, clean water that is necessary for so many things on the Shore — not the least of which is aquaculture,” Johnsen said.
HRSD customers share the cost of every sewer system repair and upgrade in every locality in the district, and HRSD’s rates have doubled within the last eight years, Henifin confirmed at an Exmore town council meeting in December 2019.
HRSD’s current monthly rates are $5.60 for collection and $7.83 for treatment of every 1,000 gallons. That combined rate of $13.43 is set to double again within 10 years.
Bills could vary in different localities based on whether there is debt on an existing collection system or if a locality is building a collection system, among other factors.
Onancock’s town council voted in February to begin contract negotiations about transferring ownership and control of the town sewage treatment plant and system to HRSD.
The town prior to that hired an engineering firm to evaluate current and future costs for maintaining and operating the sewage treatment plant and collection system and to evaluate future risks, including from not adequately maintaining the system; changes in environmental standards; and other factors.
The firm found capital and maintenance expenses likely will total $3.9 million over the next seven years. If the town continues to own and operate the system, additional future risks include from sea level rise and storm surge; rising electricity costs; equipment failures; stricter environmental standards; and changes in the number of customers, the firm found.
A key assumption moving forward “is that the debt on the sewer plant be paid in full prior to transferring the ownership or the operation of the plant to HRSD,” said Councilman Bob Bloxom, who chaired a Sewer Transmission Line Steering Committee for the town, at the Feb. 24 town council meeting.
“There are numerous events underway that anticipate that debt being paid off as part of HRSD’s move onto the Eastern Shore,” he said then.
Information about the Onancock Sewer Transmission Line Steering Committee’s findings can be viewed at https://www.onancock.com/community/page/sewer-transmission-line-steering-committee-public-meeting
A presentation given by HRSD at two public information sessions in August 2019 can be viewed on Onancock’s website at https://www.onancock.com/sites/default/files/fileattachments/public_works/page/4951/pis_eastern_shore_forcemain_project_final_8-6-19.pdf
Contact Information for Clerk of Circuit Court:
Hon. Samuel H. Cooper Jr.
P.O. Box 126
Accomac, VA 23301
Physical Address: 23316 Courthouse Ave., Accomac
Hon. Traci L. Johnson
P.O. Box 36
Eastville, VA 23347
Physical Address: 5229 The Hornes, Eastville