The Talbot County Public Works Advisory Board (“PWAB”) on Wednesday voted unanimously to oppose the new force main sewer line to run along the St. Michaels Road that was suddenly proposed by four members of the Talbot County Council (Resolution 299). In a memorandum to the County Engineer, viewable here, the PWAB laid out five specific reasons for their opposition to the Council’s sewer project, which were discussed at length at virtual meeting yesterday accessible to the public
“What is a PWAB,” you say? “Never heard of it.” Well, the Public Works Advisory Board is an important County governmental body, created in 1977 to oversee “matters under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Works”—that is, waste water systems, sewer lines, water systems, and similar project in Talbot County. It is comprised of five qualified citizens—trained engineers, a lawyer, all with years of experience—who on a volunteer basis consult with and advise the County staff, Planning Commission, and County Council. Second only to the Planning Commission (arguably), it is a key entity to which we entrust the operation of our local government.
I was not in Talbot County in 1977, but I can think of only one reason this technical advisory board was created when all other matters are left to the Council’s discretion without benefit of an advisory panel: public health and safety. Would it not be patently unreasonable to entrust elected officials who have general skills–and justifiably popular with voters for a variety of reasons (shopkeepers, historians, insurance agents, ex-sheriffs)–to make decisions affecting our “health and safety” without expert input? Sometimes the issue is acute—like raw sewage at the Preserve at Wye Mills (at the headwaters of the Wye)–but more frequently it involves equally serious long-term risks, including nutrient pollution flowing into our local creeks and rivers.
While the PWAB, uniquely, has responsibility for this oversight and brings to bear a real understanding of engineering, technical matters, law, and legislative history, it is “only” an advisory body. The County Council can completely disregard the PWAB’s considered opinion, as they did recently when, in amending the Water and Sewer Comprehensive Plan for the Lakeside project in Trappe, they pointedly ignored the PWAB’s 5-0 recommendation in opposition.
The sole rationale for running a sewer line along almost a mile along the St. Michaels Road, past parcels ripe for development but for the protections afforded by our Comprehensive Plan, is to provide a single sanitary facility hookup for a materials-handling yard that purported needs an office trailer. [360 degree panorama here]
A more detailed backstory on Resolution 299 was presented in a prior Spy article here.
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.
Memo in Opposition to Resolution 299
TO: Ray Clarke, County Engineer
FROM: Public Works Advisory Board
DATE: May 5, 2021
SUBJECT: Proposed Resolution 299: Public Works Advisory Board’s Concerns
Based on separate conversations between the Chair and individual members of the Public Works Advisory Board over the past 24 to 48 hours, proposed Resolution 299 raises for this Board the following four substantive and one process concerns:
- Financial. The proposed extension of a sewer line for a distance of 0.8 to 0.9 mile from Carroll’s Market to the “Repurposing Facility” at an estimated cost of $180,000-$190,000, plus a connection fee of $19,200, to serve a toilet for one to two staff one to two days a week seems unnecessary and excessive to all members of the Board. Pursuant to Sections Six and Eight of the proposed Resolution, all those costs would be the sole responsibility of Talbot County taxpayers. The Board is of the unanimous view that imposition of those costs on the County’s taxpayers is not justified if any less costly alternative is feasible. Further, the Board believes that alternatives exist that have not been fully investigated or evaluated. For instance, the possibilities of both a sewer connection into the adjoining service territory of Easton Utilities and an on-site disposal system have been known since at least October 28, 2020. But no attempt to pursue the former occurred until spurred by requests at our last meeting, and the Department missed the Health Officer’s January 18, 2021 deadline to apply for a wet-weather soils evaluation this year for the latter. Little, if any, consideration is evident of other alternatives, such as composting or incinerating toilets for such a limited-use application.
- Development Implications. Board members are concerned that the existence of a force main along Route 33 between Carroll’s Market and the Repurposing Facility will generate irresistible pressure for development in an area designated for Countryside Preservation. This concern is amplified by contradictory and inconsistent provisions in the proposed Resolution itself that seem to contemplate further connections and development. For example, Section Five states, “Connection to the force main shall not be used to accommodate further subdivision,” but then immediately goes on to gut that prohibition with the qualifier, “without further amendment of the CWSP duly approved by the Council.” Section Six further undercuts any notion of limiting service by referring to the possible “recoupment of a portion of the construction costs from other lots served by the force main that may be authorized to connect to it in the future.” Similarly, the apparently blanket, sweeping declarations in Section Nine that “No sewer service shall be available to any area beyond the existing Property to be served” and “No other properties, lots, or parcels . . . shall be entitled to service or capacity” are immediately undercut by the addition of “unless and until the CWSP is amended to permit such service.” So even those provisions of the Resolution that might afford the Countryside Preservation zone some protection or assurance against further development are eviscerated as soon as they are stated. Consequently, the only thing that would stand between further subdivision, or extending service from this sewer extension to new developments, would be three votes of some future Council. The Board believes, for the reasons that follow, that this outcome would be antithetical to the original premises of the Unionville- Tunis Mills-Copperville force main and to the policies and principles in Resolution 175, the so-called Carroll’s Market Exception.
- Inconsistency with Original Authorization and Resolution 175. Research has uncovered the November 13, 1993 Resolution by which the County Council originally authorized the extension of sewer service to the Unionville/Tunis Mills/Copperville service areas. This is the force main from which Resolution 299 now proposes to extend sewer service to the Repurposing Facility. The 1993 Resolution states unequivocally, “the force main and pumping station will be designed to accommodate flows only from:
- the Unionville/Tunis Mills/Copperville service areas;
- any homes constructed as of this date along the force main route designated by the Talbot County Health Department as having septic systems with the potential for failure; and
- any existing lots of record as of this date which the Talbot County Health Department determines cannot be adequately served by on-site septic systems.”
The authorizing Resolution goes on to state the intent of the Council that “access to the force main will be restricted to the properties identified above, and, . . . no service is intended to other properties along the proposed force main.”
In 2010, the Council restated the denied-access policy when it created a limited exception for Carroll’s Market in Resolution 175, A RESOLUTION TO ESTABLISH SEWER SERVICE CONNECTION POLICIES FROM THE UNIONVILLE, TUNIS MILLS AND COPPERVILLE SEWER SERVICE AREA LOW-PRESSURE FORCE MAIN COLLECTION SYSTEM TO THE ROYAL OAK PUMP STATION. The Council noted that, since the Comprehensive Plan had been updated twice since 1993, and the Comprehensive Water and Sewer Plan (CWSP) had been updated, “it is now appropriate for the County to revisit, and clarify the original sewer service connection policies.” Pursuant to Resolution 175, Section 2, “Connection to the force main from property outside the SSA shall be permitted only from (a) Improved property with an existing on-site septic system that is failing.” A system “was considered to be failing only if it (1) was legally permitted and properly inspected when installed; (2) is incapable of adequately disposing of sewage; (3) is creating an immediate and substantial public health problem; and (4) cannot be repaired or replaced at reasonable cost to adequately dispose of sewage on-site using best available technologies or alternative systems.” Even then, “before consideration may be given to connect the property to the force main,” “All best available technologies and alternative systems for on-site sewage disposal must be evaluated by the Talbot County Health Department and found to be too expensive, incapable of handling wastewater flows, or impractical.”
The Board believes that Resolution 175 applies to consideration of extending sewer to connect the Repurposing Facility, and the proposal does not meet these criteria for an exception to the denied-access policy
- Lack of an Overall Strategy. Resolution 299 is one of a series of recent, ad hoc measures over the past two to three years that seek to address a single situation in isolation. It and Resolutions 268 (Milesview), 283 (McMiles), 293 (Ferry Bridge), 300 (Ferry Point), and 301(The Preserve) all purport to deal with special and one-of-a-kind situations without any organizing principles for guidance in assigning priorities. Although it may exist, the Board is not aware of any comprehensive, cohesive strategy to determine priorities and allocate scarce resources, either the County’s or State or Federal Agency grants or loans. We question whether consideration has been given, for example, to whether connecting the Repurposing Facility should be a County sewer priority, or whether the $180,000-190,000 of County funds might be better spent elsewhere, perhaps upgrading failed septic systems to BAT or connecting some that are outside Priority Funding Areas and thus ineligible for State grants. Review and revision of the CWSP is long overdue, and the Board believes that review and revision with public involvement and participation should be completed before the County commits to any new sewer projects.
- Process. The entire process of consideration of Resolution 299 has seemed rushed and hasty, and we are puzzled as to why. No member of the Board was made aware of plans to connect the Repurposing Facility to sewer or, alternatively, to develop an on-site system there until receipt of materials in advance of our April 7, 2021 meeting. Yet we were asked at that meeting to consider Resolution 299 and develop a recommendation for Council action on it. The Resolution itself had been introduced only on March 23, and yet it was already set for public hearing on April 13, before either the Planning Commission or this Board had considered its merits. Judging by Ann Morse’s October 29, 2020 email to Warren Edwards, plans for some sort of sewer service or septic had been in the works at since October. The Council’s decision on April 13 to defer the hearing recognized, as President Callahan acknowledged, that the Council might have “jumped the gun.” We are puzzled and curious as to why the process has been so rushed and hasty. It has not yet allowed for consideration, reflection, or full evaluation of all alternatives.
Therefore, for all these reasons, the Public Works Advisory Board recommends against adoption of Resolution 299 at this time. Further, we request that a copy of this memo be provided to the Council, the County Manager’s Office, the Planning Commission, and the County Health Officer.