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Construction stops as wastewater plants in Union County near capacity

Published: Jul. 15, 2021 at 5:31 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 15, 2021 at 7:37 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - In Union County plans to build apartments, businesses and even medical facilities are at a standstill.

A wastewater plant in the county has reached capacity and commissioners have put a cap on future building projects to help preserve what’s left.

But the price tag of keeping up with that growth could end up costing rate payers.

Every building has a footprint and that footprint includes an amount of water it will use.

In Union County all those footprints are adding up. Several areas in the western part of the county are at or near complete capacity for wastewater, meaning the facility can’t treat any more sewage.

Crooked Creek, which includes Stallings, is at 84 percent. Twelve Mile, which includes Waxhaw and Wesley Chapel, is at 98 percent. Those percentages include current flows as well as permitted/obligated flows that are yet to come online.

The impact is significant for builders and developers. County Commissioners are now blocking wastewater permits as long as the capacity in the area is at 95 percent.

The North Carolina Division of Environmental Quality has a rule that requires permittees to submit an application whenever flows at a treatment facility reach 80 percent of its rated capacity. Since January 11, Union County Commissioners directed staff to stop submitting projects for permitting once the treatment facilities reach 95 percent of actual and obligated flows.

There are 24 projects in the 12 Mile Creek pipeline that are under construction review but will have their permits held up once they’re ready to build. Seven of them are ready to go right now and are being blocked by the moratorium.

“That’s why we’re working so diligently trying to mitigate our constraints right now so that we can give them some relief,” Union County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Helms said.

Helms sat down with WBTV to talk about how the county is working through some of these problems. Two projects are currently planned that would free up additional capacity in the 12 Mile Creek region and potentially lift the permitting moratorium.

“Those are four to six months out. I wish they were quicker, but it’s very time consuming to lay pipe in the ground and things of that nature,” Helms said.

During a recent meeting Union County Manager Mark Watson was quick to point out that those are short term solutions that don’t fix the long term problem.

“We are running out of capacity and at a pretty quick clip,” Watson said.

The solution to keep up with the growth is a new wastewater treatment plant. The problem is the cost.

“That’s not something that should be on the backs of the ratepayers,” County Commissioner Stony Rushing said.

“That should be on the backs of the development community and the people who are wanting to build the projects.”

Rushing has been an advocate against water and wastewater increases to pay for a new plant.

Over the past two years water and wastewater rates in Union County have increased by 30 percent costing the average family of four an additional $27 per month.

Paying for a new treatment plant to increase capacity and allow for more growth, would likely mean another rate increase.

“If we can’t do it with the money that we’re bringing in then maybe we shouldn’t again be doing some of these projects,” Rushing said.

In 2016, county staff presented a Water and Sewer Master Plan to provided for the construction of a new Lower Crooked Creek Water Reclamation Facility. The area currently sends flows to the 12 Mile Creek basin. Creating a new facility there would free up additional capacity in the 12 Mile basin.

However, Union County Commissioners did not give approval for the plan to move forward at the time.

Local towns are looking for solutions.

Indian Trail Mayor Michael Alvarez says he is also wary an increase for rate payers to shoulder a new treatment plant.

“Right now, the only source of revenue to help increase capacity is for the county to increase the water rates, and that’s not acceptable because then it falls back on the taxpayer once again,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said that options are limited because the North Carolina General Assembly blocks municipalities from levying impact fees against developers to help pay for the cost of some of those projects. He said those are likely to get passed down to the consumer anyway.

The County is currently working with the towns on an interlocal agreement to start mitigating the wastewater issues. Monroe has its own wastewater facilities and is not part of the discussion.

“How much is this going to cost, and how do we divvy it up equally between the towns and the county with as little impact on the current taxpayers as possible, that’s where the challenge begins,” Alvarez said.

The challenge of looking at the future is already staring some major builders right in the face.

Atrium Health will complete its new Union West facility in Stallings in December. The first phase of the project has capacity but the next ones might not.

“What is not allocated are their ancillary projects that are on the same property. So, phase two and phase three do not have capacity,” Assistant County Manager Brian Matthews said during a meeting.

WBTV reached out to Atrium to gauge their plans for the future in Union County. But the hospital system kept their answer vague.

“If there is any confusion related to our plans for this part of the county, we’ll certainly continue to work with local leaders in Union County, as we know Atrium Health Union West will be a tremendous asset for the region for decades to come,” a spokesperson for the hospital wrote.

“I don’t think we have an option,” Helms said.

“You want you want to harm our economy. Do nothing.”

Helms says that he’s hoping the county’s good bond rating will keep the impact on rate payers low.

But the ultimate question is whether investing in Union County is a smart option as the future of development remains uncertain.

Asked whether Union County was still open for business, Rushing and Helms provided two divergent answers.

“There are plenty of places around the Charlotte region that that like growth, need growth probably more than we do,” Rushing said.

“We’re trying to plan and get more capacity, so we’ll have the opportunity to grow, but without that wastewater treatment plant we have very little options,” Helms said.

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