BERLIN – In recent months, Worcester County officials have denied two major requests for sewer capacity in West Ocean City.
The requests come less than four years after the $12.8 million expansion of the area’s Mystic Harbour Wastewater Treatment Plant.
While some might say they’re stifling growth, county officials say they’re ensuring sewer capacity remains available for existing homes and businesses.
“It’s a valuable resource and we recognize it’s a valuable resource and one the county commissioners should allocate carefully so Worcester County grows in the manner envisioned for Worcester County,” said Kelly Shannahan, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer.
Hugh Cropper, the attorney representing the property owners whose requests have been denied, sees no reason for the rejections, citing the fact that capacity is available. He pointed out that one of the requests came from Frontier Town, a stalwart supporter of the local economy. The additional EDUs (Equivalent Dwelling Units) requested by Frontier Town would have allowed it to expand its campground.
“I see no reason to deny Frontier Town,” Cropper said. “They pay tons of property taxes, hospitality taxes, they’re building new amenities. Camping is a growing trend.”
In October, Cropper presented a request for 139 EDUs for Sea Oaks Village, a townhouse development that would have included commercial space on Route 611. The Worcester County Commissioners rejected the request in a 4-3 vote, pointing out that Cropper had called the same property “environmentally sensitive” a year before when he’d asked to transfer its then EDUs to another property.
Not quite two months later, Cropper presented a request for 71 EDUs for Frontier Town. The sewer capacity would have enabled Frontier Town to expand its campground, a goal it’s been working toward the past two years.
The commissioners were again divided on the issue, voting 4-3 to deny the request. Those who sided to reject the request argued that while the Mystic Harbour Sanitary Service Area had EDUs available, they were set aside for specific uses.
Document Details EDU Usage
In an interview last week, Shannahan talked about how those uses were determined. When the Mystic Harbour Wastewater Treatment Plant was expanded in 2014, it was able to treat an additional 200,000 gallons per day. That resulted in 666 additional EDUs for the service area. An EDU, the unit of measure by which users are charged for sewer service, equates to 300 gallons per day in the Mystic Harbour Sanitary Service Area.
When the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) approved inclusion of the expansion in the county’s water and sewerage plan, an allocation table was part of that approval. The table breaks down how the 666 EDUs should be used by breaking the service area into two regions. North of the airport, for example, that table allocates 148 EDUs for infill and intensification, 80 EDUs for vacant or multi-lot properties, 17 EDUs for single family dwellings, and 80 EDUs for commercial properties. That accounts for 325 EDUs, only 298 of which are still available.
South of the airport, the table offers similar breakdowns of 341 EDUs, 55 of which are still available.
In all, there are 353 EDUs available in the Mystic Harbour Sanitary Service Area. The sale of those EDUs will help pay back the $8.13 million loan that helped fund the expansion of the wastewater treatment plant.
“All of the property owners within the Mystic Harbour Service Area pay toward debt retirement,” Shannahan said. “The more EDUs we can sell the more users we’ll have to share that overall cost.”
Based on the number of EDUs the county has already sold, it needs to sell about 20 a year going forward to ensure it can pay back the 40-year loan in time.
“If we are unable to, that means more debt for existing users,” Shannahan said. “So there is an incentive for us to sell EDUs but at the same time we need to sell them in accordance with the table we set up.”
The EDU calculations in the table, Shannahan said, were based on characteristics of the service area — things like the prevalence of available properties and the number of homes on septic systems.
“At some point those septic systems will fail and they’ll need to hook up to the service area,” he said.
The allocation figures were developed by the county’s Department of Environmental Programs and reviewed by Worcester County’s’ sewer committee, a staff committee that includes employees from county administration, public works, environmental programs, the treasurer’s office and economic development. Though some staff committees, such as the technical review committee, have listed agendas and meeting dates on the county’s website, the sewer committee does not.
“The sewer committee is a staff committee,” Shannahan said. “Because we have so many different departments with involvement in water and sewer we decided it would behoove us to have a standard meeting date … It’s just various departments that have involvement with water and sewer.”
When Cropper asked for 71 EDUs for Frontier Town — the amount needed for the campground expansion — the sewer committee reviewed his request before it went to the commissioners.
“Our job is not necessarily to make recommendations, we simply provide the county commissioners with the information they need to make decisions,” Shannahan said. “We give them options.”
In this case, the committee presented two options — deny the request or approve it by using some of the 298 EDUs allocated and available for the area north of the airport.
Cropper said he asked to present his request to the sewer committee but wasn’t given an opportunity. Instead, he made his case in front of the commissioners when it came time for a final decision.
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, whose motion that day to approve the request failed to pass, said this week he supported Frontier Town’s plans.
“I thought it was a good project,” he said. “I think we need to get as much of that area off septic and on sewer as possible.”
Commissioner Chip Bertino, one of the four who voted to deny the request, said he wanted to stick to the EDU designations laid out in the table.
“Why have a table if you’re not going to adhere to it?” he said. “Staff went through a lot of effort to put that together.”
He said however that he was not averse to tweaking the table if a need arose.
“I’d take it on a case by case basis,” he said.
Bertino added that the table was part of the documentation approved by MDE and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which supplied the loan to fund the expansion.
“If we make any change, we need to get approval from MDE and USDA,” he said.
Mitrecic doesn’t believe that would be difficult to do.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal at all,” he said. “I don’t believe reallocating is going to cause that much of an issue.”
He also disputed the idea that expanding the plant further, to provide additional EDUs, would result in more effluent (sewage) than the county could handle. He believes the county could handle the effluent by a combination of existing methods.
Mitrecic said he didn’t know why so many of his peers voted against granting Frontier Town the EDUs.
“It seemed to me some of the commissioners who voted against it might have had an ulterior motive but you’d have to ask them,” he said.
Denials Appealed In Court
Cropper too remains perplexed as to why his request was not approved. He maintains that there was no reason the request should have been denied and he’s confident enough in that belief to take the issue to court. He’s filed an appeal of the commissioners’ Frontier Town decision in Worcester County Circuit Court. Cropper said Frontier Town’s move to eliminate septic systems and hook up to county sewer was the same process Castaways Campground (which is also owned by Sun Communities) went through a few years ago.
Frontier Town, he explained, was served by a 37-acre drain field. He said Sun Communities wanted to connect the 584 campsites currently served by septic to county sewer and discontinue the drain fields, which would allow space for a campground expansion.
“They justified paying the money to connect by getting the campground expansion,” Cropper said.
He added that the elimination of septic in an area so close to the bay would benefit the local environment as well.
“It seemed like a win-win situation,” Cropper said. “A win for the environment and for the county.”
That plan is what led to Frontier Town’s request to downzone 36 acres from C-2 to A-2. The commissioners approved that rezoning in 2016.
“They absolutely understood it was being rezoned for a campground expansion…,” he said. “The notion that the county didn’t know an expansion was going there is erroneous, incorrect and inaccurate.”
He said Sun Communities had spent more than half a million dollars getting site plans for the project approved.
“That will be wasted if they don’t get EDUs,” he said.
He added that not only had the county approved the property’s rezoning, it had also expanded the service area to include Frontier Town.
“Why rezone? Why expand the service area?” he said. “I don’t know what changed.”
Cropper is also appealing the Sea Oaks EDU decision. While the county has already filed a motion to dismiss the case, Cropper said he filed opposition to that motion Wednesday.
“They didn’t give us any EDUs,” Cropper said. “What can you do with Sea Oaks without any EDUs?”
The property, which was sold for more than $2.2 million in September, is zoned residential and commercial.
“The only two uses that don’t require EDUs are hunting blinds and parks,” Cropper said.
He maintains that regardless of what the commissioners have said, the county’s water and sewerage plan, and associated table, is a guide.
“The master water and sewerage plan is a guide,” he said. “It’s amended all the time. It’s a broad-brush guide like the comprehensive zoning plan. It’s not carved in stone.”