By Stefanie Jackson – As Exmore continues to weigh its options for replacing its outdated sewer plant, including opportunities for both public and private partnerships, one citizen suggested a “third option.”
Ken Dufty, an Exmore business owner, opposes an offer from the public Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) to take over Exmore’s sewer plant, including reconstruction, ownership, operation, and customer billing.
HRSD would build a $25 million force main to carry wastewater from Nassawadox, Exmore, Melfa, and part of Accomac, to the Onancock wastewater treatment plant.
At an Oct. 2 public hearing, Judge Revell Lewis III granted HRSD’s petitions to begin negotiating deals with the Eastern Shore’s counties and towns.
“What they didn’t tell the judge was that the towns, like Exmore, have to build out their infrastructure, and then when it’s done – according to their enabling act – sign it over to HRSD,” Dufty contended.
“So we borrow $7 million to put in new pipes in Exmore and then we give it to HRSD, but they assume no debt.”
“It’s kind of like buying a new truck, giving it back to the dealer with a clean title but having to pay for that truck for the next 10 years … we don’t think that benefits this town at all,” Dufty said.
He pointed out that HRSD rates have risen sharply (they doubled over an eight-year period) and show no signs of decline as HRSD continues to plan capital improvements that will cost about $2.7 billion.
Dufty also does not believe HRSD would benefit Northampton County environmentally.
He noted that treated wastewater would flow into Onancock Creek and would not replenish groundwater.
Neither would the Eastern Shore have a local representative on the HRSD board, since Accomack and Northampton County will be grouped with other counties, like Mathews and King William, which are already represented on the board, Dufty said.
A second option is Exmore entering an agreement with private company Aqua Virginia, but there is no guarantee that there would be longterm economic benefits for customers. Sewer rates would be locked in for just 10 years.
Dufty proposed a third option: creating a new Public Service Authority (PSA) for both Accomack and Northampton County.
Northampton already has a PSA, which has been a source of contention in the past.
According to Exmore town council meeting minutes from June 1, 2015, the town council was informed that the PSA wanted to expand Cape Charles’ sewer line to serve 70 lots near Route 13, but only four lot owners wanted to get connected.
Raising Northampton taxes was considered the only way to fund the unpopular project, and Exmore’s town council opposed that proposal, as did several citizens who spoke out on June 1, 2015.
By July 2015, Northampton supervisors had voted to postpone the PSA project indefinitely, and the Exmore town council voted unanimously to disband the PSA.
Then in October 2019, Northampton supervisors held a closed session, followed by five separate motions to appoint each of the five supervisors to the PSA, replacing the members whose terms had expired.
The Northampton supervisors who were appointed to the PSA in 2019 were Spencer Murray, John Coker, David Fauber, Oliver Bennett, and Robert Duer.
(Murray did not seek re-election in 2019, and neither did Duer, who is Exmore’s town manager.)
The appointments were made as HRSD planned to make its case to Accomack and Northampton officials and citizens.
When the Public Service Authority was active, “you still had local control,” Dufty reminded town council members.
“When we sign on the line with HRSD, you can’t disband HRSD,” he cautioned.
The bi-county PSA could take advantage of Accomack County soil that would be compatible with a rapid infiltration basin, or RIB, which is used to return treated wastewater to the ground.
Sewage could be pumped to the Onancock treatment plant, but the end product could help replenish groundwater instead of being pumped into Onancock Creek, Dufty suggested.
“If there’s no other options and you choose to go with HRSD, I am not going to be … beating anything with a hammer,” he remarked.
“We will help you educate the people on the benefits as long as the benefits outweigh the detriments.”
Director of Utilities Taylor Dukes said Exmore’s sewer project – consisting of a new treatment plant and expansion of the collection system – likely will cost about $17 million or maybe even $18 million.
He said Exmore has a “borrowing limit” of $10 million, meaning the town will need to find $7 million or $8 million from other funding sources such as state and federal programs.
A public hearing was held on Exmore’s plan to apply for sewer project funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development.
Dukes said the town will apply for the “full price” of the sewer project, and USDA will decide how much grant and loan funding it will offer.
Another public hearing was held on Exmore’s plan to apply for a $1 million Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.
Those funds would be applied to the expansion of the town’s sewage collection system.
The grant application process is competitive, with just $8.8 million available this year, which was given to the state by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.
The last time Exmore applied for a block grant, the town was required to survey residents on their household income.
Exmore now consists of 57% low-to-moderate income households, so no survey was required this time, Dukes said.
Public comments may be submitted until Jan. 20, 2021, and the application is due March 29, 2021.