By Tony Russo
We don’t normally think of the rainy season as having an effect on a town’s ability to grow, but in Delmar that may be happening.
Over the last several years the town has had sewer capacity issues, but they have very little to do with the increased number of residents or the building boom currently underway. Town Manager Sara Bynum-King described it as more of an infrastructure problem than a capacity problem. The wastewater treatment plant is running just fine. The pipes that carry the wastewater, though, are having a rough go of it.
While many of the town’s pipes have already been replaced, age is taking its toll on several others, and the town has been scrambling to keep up with this failing infrastructure. Hurting matters was the recent loss of Director of Public Works Jerome Reid, who retired on Oct. 5 after 26 years.
The town hasn’t gotten a lot of response to its vacancy announcement, but Bynum-King said there have been more responses and the town hopes to begin interviewing for a replacement in the next few weeks.
The town has inflow and infiltration issues. That is, stormwater has been seeping into the wastewater pipes at a rate of nearly three times what the system can accommodate. To be clear, this isn’t a natural disaster waiting to happen, but that doesn’t make the people who live with the flooding any happier — especially in the areas of Chestnut and Pine streets in the Maryland part of town.
“The pipes below that area, they're terracotta, they're crumbling,” said Maryland Mayor Karen Wells. “I mean, there's a lot of flooding there. The last rain that came, I got the text messages and the emails, (from people saying) ‘We’re flooding.’ I know you're flooding, I know it's frustrating.”
The Maryland commissioners have applied for grant money from the state to fix this particular problem, and Wells said they expect to begin accepting bids in January with an eye on having construction start in spring 2022. Town engineers estimate the project cost at around $1.3 million.
But that only takes care of the most pressing problems. The cost to taxpayers of replacing the pipes is incredibly expensive and the town is scrambling to find ways to fund it, but there aren’t a lot of pleasant options beyond hoping to get state grants. While there are "hookup fees” that help cover the cost of any eventual expansion to the wastewater plant, there are no fees in place to replace failing infrastructure. One option Wells said is under consideration is enacting greater impact fees on new construction to better fund infrastructure maintenance.
Maintenance now is funded by taxpayers, but there has just not been enough funding to go around.
A stop-gap measure
Bynum-King said the town has been using slip linings where possible to help reduce the seepage issues. As the name implies, these go inside the pipes to prevent seepage, but they are not a long-term solution.
Meanwhile, the town continues to approve new construction and growth, while sometimes struggling with developers over their responsibilities.
Last month a contractor for Wood Creek Developer Barry Mehta drilled through a sewer line causing $38,000 worth of damage that the town may be on the hook for. This issue remains unresolved and may result in the town suing the developer over who has to pay the bill.
Commission candidate Jason Boothe has said the town should consider a building moratorium until they can get a handle on all of the competing growth requests and issues.
Delmar Planning and Zoning Commission hasn’t exactly put the brakes on, but Commissioner Beverly Wilson has indicated that she is prepared to.
During the most recent meeting, Wilson addressed the issue while approving a proposed new development.
Speaking with developer Ryan Conway about Kilteel Estates, his proposed 83-home subdivision on Gordy Mill Road, she said she would vote to allow the project to go forward under the understanding that capacity could still be an issue that would hold up construction.
“I have now more information and as long as you’re aware that you could be in a very long wait for this,” she said. “I feel that it could be years before you’re even able to build. Now, I have no idea.”
Wilson said that this was the second major development that has come up for a hearing since she’s been aware of the town’s wastewater pipe problems.