County Holds Off Berlin Sewer Vote

SNOW HILL – The Berlin sewage system expansion is once again in limbo after the County Commissioners postponed a decision on the necessary county water and sewer plan amendment.

The commissioners voted Tuesday to delay a decision on the amendment, allowing Berlin to expand and upgrade its sewage system to increase nutrient removal and handle new growth, after two hours of presentations.

The commissioners cited the need to address concerns expressed by the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP), and the need for the county Planning Commission to consider language on the retention of the industrial wastewater discharge permit at the former Tyson plant.

Berlin proposes to increase the town wastewater system to handle up to 1.4 million gallons of sewage per day (mgd), which would be 3,200 EDUs, some of which would be discharged to Kitt’s Branch until spray land is available.

The plan before the county would eliminate the water discharge in 10 years, require new developments to provide more than enough spray irrigation land to handle the sewer increase and attempt to reuse effluent for lawns and gardens.

The town would be assessed on its spray irrigation progress several times in 10 years.

“That will be an opportunity to discuss with the town where they are,” county Comprehensive Planning Director Sandy Coyman said.

The proposal before the commissioners called for a new plant added at the Tyson site to augment the existing plant, despite last week’s recommendation by consultant Mark Prouty of URS Corp. that a single plant would be more economical.

Joe Moore, attorney representing the town, said that the number of plants was an economic decision and made no difference to the effect of the new system on water quality.

Projections call for nutrients running into local waters from sewage operations to be halved to meet the total maximum daily load (TMDL) limit, the allowable nitrogen pollution level.

Reaching the TMDL for Ayers Creek, Newport Creek and Newport Bay will be difficult, Coyman said. Under the best-case scenario, “we would just barely make the TMDL,” he said.

“You need to cut it in half is basically what you’re saying, and what the town is putting in now is very little from the [current] plant,” Commissioner Virgil Shockley said.

The intent is to move entirely to spray irrigation within a decade.

Commissioner Judy Boggs was skeptical that a 10-year plan could be called an interim plan.

“They have to locate land. They have to do soil tests,” Coyman said. “It does take a number of years after you embark on spray irrigation before you can spray on it.”

“In 10 years we’re not all going to be here,” Boggs said. “In 10 years, the land for spray application is going to be too expensive to afford or it’s not going to be available.”

Berlin already knows how to handle spray irrigation, said Moore.

“We already have it. We are the only municipality in this county to have it,” he said.

Since the current spray land does not have the best soils, the town needs to find more land. He acknowledged that could take time.

 The town met with the Planning Commission three times to hash out better benchmarks, Moore said. Berlin also must comply with a state consent order requiring the town use spray only, and upgrade effluent treatment. “We are getting out of the waters of the state of Maryland,” Moore said. “We’re getting out. We’re not waiting for nine and a half years.”

The town has workable mileposts, according to Moore.

“What plant are we talking about? Are you talking about two plants? Are you talking about one plant?” Shockley asked.

“We don’t know, Mr. Shockley, as we stand here today,” Moore said. “One plant, two plants, it’s on an economic basis. Whether we’re a one plant or two-plant scenario is going to be based on whatever is best for the ratepayers of the town. It very well could be one plant.”

The state’s consent order, to get out of the water entirely in 10 years, necessitated some number crunching, Prouty said.

“We could have waited on that analysis till after this meeting. However, we also need to meet MDE’s need for a schedule,” he said.

The two-plant scenario came about because of developer Troy Purnell’s proposal to build, and pay more a large part of, a new plant on the Tyson site.          If the two-plant scenario is abandoned, Moore said that the industrial discharge permit at the Tyson plant’s wastewater facility only disappears from the equation if the town sewer system can handle new users, making the industrial permit unnecessary.

The details have to be worked out, said county attorney and lifelong Berlin resident Ed Hammond. “The County Commissioners have to trust the town to some extent,” he said.

“If we don’t put our money where our mouth is you’re going to be a lot more skeptical the next time around,” Moore said. 

Mark Cropper, attorney representing Purnell and his company Berlin Properties North (BPN), added a new wrinkle to the proceedings. The commissioners need to add a note, Cropper said, in the water and sewer plan amendment that would recognize that renewal of the industrial wastewater discharge permit at the old Tyson plant was consistent with the amendment. Without it the state will not renew the permit, which expires in August.

“It’s kind of an all or nothing proposition to Berlin,” Cropper said.

The county planning commission needs to look it over, according to Hammond. “You’re going to have to send it back,” he said. “That’s the way the rule book reads.”

As long as Purnell has sewer capacity to build his development with, renewing the permit is not necessary, Shockley said.

“We won’t know that between now and August is the problem,” Cropper said.

BPN would then be forced to sell the Tyson site for industrial uses if Berlin does not come through with sewer capacity, although the developer does not want to do that, Cropper said.

“We can’t let it expire and be left nowhere,” Cropper said. “They’ve got millions of dollars invested in that property.”

“What a hammer that BPN has in its hands that the town does not have,” Hammond said.

If BPN wanted to use the industrial permit as a hammer, the company would not be involved in the proposal at hand, Cropper said.

“This is the first I’m hearing of this. You’ve known about it quite awhile,” Boggs said.

The permit’s expiration date was never a secret, Cropper said, but he himself didn’t realize the language needed to be added to the amendment until last month.

A handful of people spoke up during the public hearing. Ray Shandley, who lives on Ayers Creek, protested the planned interim discharge into Kitts Branch, which leads to the creek. “That’s not what we want. That’s not what the state wants. That’s not what you want,” he said. “Do not go forward with something that permits an extension of dumping into the streams.”

“We really do need to clean  up our water bodies. There are indications in our coastal bays [that] our water quality is decreasing also,” said Roman Jesien, science coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

The commissioners concluded that the discharge permit addition would need to be looked over by the planning commission before a decision. Uneasiness over a letter from Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) professing concern over zoning and consistency with the county comprehensive plan was also a factor in the delayed decision. 

“That is the most ill-informed letter I’ve seen in a long time,” Moore said, pointing out that MDP assumes that Berlin, not Worcester County, set up the growth areas outside the town limits.

“I feel uncomfortable in discounting this,” Boggs said.

 “It would appear to me we should probably postpone action until the Planning Commission discusses the industrial discharge permit and determines underlying zoning,” County Administrator Gerry Mason said.

The commissioners voted unanimously to hold their decision until the Dec. 18 meeting.