SNOW HILL – For the second time in two months, county officials denied a request for sewer capacity in West Ocean City.
On Tuesday, the Worcester County Commissioners voted 4-3 to deny a request for 71 EDUs (equivalent dwelling units) from Frontier Town. Several commissioners argued that the county’s new EDU policy (and associated EDU allocation table) approved earlier this year assigned the area’s available EDUs to specific purposes.
“We didn’t allocate for Frontier Town in that table…,” Commissioner Jim Bunting said. “We have a plan. We all signed it.”
According to county staff, in March of this year Frontier Town purchased 166 EDUs from the Mystic Harbour Sanitary Service Area to eliminate the existing campground’s septic system. In November, Frontier Town asked to purchase another 71 EDUs.
Kelly Shannahan, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, told the commissioners this week that while the county had 55 EDUs allocated for the area south of the airport, they were set aside for specific purposes, such as vacant lots and commercial infill. He said that there were 298 EDUs allocated for the area north of the airport that could potentially be sold to Frontier Town.
“Once EDUs are transferred from one category to another and sold, they will no longer be available for the originally intended purpose,” he said.
Commissioner Chip Bertino asked what would happen when the EDUs had all been allocated and property owners needed sewer capacity.
“It would require modifications to the plant,” Shannahan said, adding that finding a place to dispose of effluent would be a larger problem than expanding the wastewater treatment plant itself.
Commissioner Ted Elder asked what would happen if a septic tank failed and there was no sewer capacity available at the plant. County staff members explained that a holding tank would have to be used if that occurred.
Attorney Hugh Cropper, representing Frontier Town, said that the county had borrowed $8 million to upgrade the Mystic Harbour plant and could repay that loan through the sale of EDUs. He said Frontier Town was asking for just 71 of 353 total available EDUs.
“The debt associated with 353 EDUs is over $4 million,” he said. “The question is how are you going to repay that loan? You got in the business of EDUs to sell them to repay the loan.”
Cropper said that if EDUs were not sold to cover the loan repayment the debt would fall on taxpayers, more specifically the users of the Mystic Harbour Sanitary Service Area.
“If there was ever a place to sell EDUs, this is it,” Cropper said. “
He stressed that Sun Communities, the company that owns Frontier Town, had purchased the facility and was improving it by eliminating the septic system.
“They voluntarily came in and bought 166 EDUs,” he said.
He said when the company had applied for a change in zoning from commercial to agricultural, it had been to expand the campground. Cropper pointed out the expansion had already been approved by the county’s various commissions.
“We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, probably close to a million dollars, developing the expansion to this campground which we assumed the county embraced…,” Cropper said. “This is a huge mess for my client who has completely renovated the campground, (is) going to get rid of the drain fields, paid lots of taxes, lots of hospitality taxes, employed lots of people, all with the idea of doing this campground expansion. Literally they’re dumbfounded.”
Elder objected to Cropper’s comments regarding the county being in business with the wastewater plant.
“It was put there to clean up the bay and get people off drain fields,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said he thought getting properties off septic systems in that area was critical.
“This is a huge move to do that,” he said.
Mitrecic made a motion to approve the EDU request by giving Frontier Town EDUs that were allocated for the area north of the airport.
Commissioner Bud Church seconded the motion, adding that Elder might have a different opinion if residents in his district were faced with the service area debt.
“If his district were paying that fee, if it was in his district, I question whether or not he’d be willing to see it differently,” Church said.
The motion failed with just Mitrecic, Church and Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw voting to support it.
Commissioner Jim Bunting said he was opposed to granting Frontier Town’s request because it didn’t fit in with the allocation table approved by the commissioners in the new allocation policy. He said changes to the policy could require approval from the Maryland Department of the Environment. He added that the commissioners had voted in October not to sell EDUs to Sea Oaks Village, a townhouse development proposed for Route 611.
Bertino asked how the sale of EDUs related to paying off the debt associated with the expansion of the plant.
Jessica Wilson, the county’s enterprise fund controller, said the county needed to sell 20 EDUs a year to keep up with the debt. She added that if there was an issue keeping up with the debt, the county’s general fund could issue a loan.
Shannahan told the commissioners he thought the county would be able to sell those EDUs.
“In Worcester County, sewer dictates growth,” he said. “The allocation of these EDUs is your opportunity to determine how Worcester County will grow and how you’re going to implement your comprehensive plan.”
The commissioners voted 4-3 in support of a motion made by Bunting to deny Frontier Town’s EDU request. Lockfaw, Mitrecic and Church were opposed.