Commissioners Question Sewer Flow Estimates, Plan To Meet With Committee

SNOW HILL –  Heated discussion surrounded recommendations for standard sewer flow calculations at a meeting of the Worcester County Commissioners this week.

During a work session on Tuesday, staff presented the commissioners with a draft resolution establishing standard flow calculations. They said the resolution, which was developed by the county’s sewer committee, would streamline the sewer allocation process and eliminate any subjectivity in county decisions. The commissioners, however, had numerous concerns with the proposal and agreed that three of them would attend the sewer committee’s next meeting.

“I want to sit in the room and find out why you came up with what you came up with,” Commissioner Jim Bunting said.

According to Kelly Shannahan, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, sewer flow is calculated based on equivalent dwelling units, or EDUs. One EDU represents the amount of flow an average home uses, typically 300 gallons per day. The concept is trickier when dealing with businesses.

“In order to determine the number of EDUs needed to serve commercial and other developments requires us to project the sewer flow based upon the proposed development,” he said.

To do that the county looks at guidance from the Maryland Department of the Environment as well as the actual flows generated by similar uses locally.

“Our goal with this proposed resolution is to combine these guidance documents and experience in order to establish local standards which can be applied consistently to all new development in the county which will eliminate subjectivity, it’ll streamline the EDU calculation process, lessen the existing workload on staff and ultimately be more business friendly,” Shannahan said.

Bunting and Commissioner Joe Mitrecic expressed concern regarding the required EDUs for shell buildings. Mitrecic said a developer could purchase additional EDUs once they started fitting out the building for its intended use.

Jessica Wilson, the county’s enterprise fund controller, said there had been a lot of inconsistencies in that process in the past. She referenced developer Palmer Gillis.

“He had a medical center that he had built,” she said. “He came in here the day of the ribbon cutting to purchase the water and sewer capacity. It should not have gotten to that point.”

Bunting objected.

“That holds no water,” he said. “There were inspectors out there (throughout the building process). That was a failure, as far as I’m concerned, on the county’s part.”

Wilson agreed and said that’s why the resolution had been developed.

“We’re trying to get to a point again where we have a consistent calculation that can be counted on by a developer that doesn’t take some mathematical formula they can’t figure out or some person to tell them how many EDUs they need,” Shannahan added.

Mitrecic said he didn’t have a problem with that as long as the county reviewed actual flows at some point after construction. He pointed out that the proposed resolution had the county reviewing flows and making the owner buy more EDUs if they were needed but went on to state that there would be no lowering of the initial EDU calculation. He said that wasn’t fair and pointed to the way Berlin handled EDU sales.

“They make you buy what the calculation is up front but if you show—and they do flow tests—if  you show that you’re not using that much flow it comes back,” Mitrecic said. “This seems to me we’re saying okay here’s the max you could use and that’s what you’re going to be paying for the rest of your life.”

Commissioner Chip Bertino brought up the Gillis project.

“Why aren’t our departments watching this stuff and recognizing or determining what’s needed before the ribbon cutting?” he said.

Mitrecic, a builder himself, agreed. “As long as it takes to get a set of plans through the county somebody should have seen something at some point,” he said.

Shannahan said the proposed resolution could be adjusted to address the commissioners’ concerns regarding the reevaluation of sewer flows.

“We’re certainly open to that. This is our draft for your consideration…,” he said. “We need to have objective standards rather than subjective standards. If we can get that in, that’s really what staff is all about.”

Shannahan said it was ideal for an accurate number of EDUs to be assigned to a building upon construction. He explained that if a developer bought one EDU for a shell building and later decided to turn it into a restaurant and needed several more EDUs, there could be problems.

“We may not have those EDUs to sell,” he said. “Mystic Harbour, we’re running out. We’ve only got a few left to sell.”

Staff said it wasn’t unusual for a business to need more EDUs than initially assigned.

“Afterwards we have to go back and recoup that and recalculate it based upon that use,” Shannahan said.

Commissioner Bud Church pointed out that the business couldn’t get its occupancy permit until it had been inspected. Shannahan agreed but said the county would look bad if it withheld the permit.

“It’s going to be egg on everyone’s face but specifically ours if they can’t get occupancy and have a giant ribbon cutting planned,” he said.

Bob Mitchell, the county’s director of environmental programs, said he didn’t want to tear down another department but that the example provided to the commissioners wasn’t accurate. He said his department had been working with EDUs since the 1980s and that in spite of the discussion, did have rules. He added that he’d shown Berlin’s EDU contract to the sewer committee years ago.

“I wanted to put this in black and white and get this correct,” he said.

Mitchell stressed that he hadn’t ignored the issue and that he’d had conversations with Gillis.

“I know he’s given you some data,” Mitchell said. “I’ve argued and pushed back on him.  I’ve told him his approach is not correct.”

When contacted after the meeting, Gillis said he’d provided the commissioners with actual flow figures for medical offices he’s developed across the Eastern Shore. According to Gillis, most jurisdictions have reduced their EDU calculations for his projects once they confirmed that the medical offices used less flow than initial calculations projected. He said that in contrast, Worcester County calculations would have him purchase eight EDUs for one of his buildings in Ocean Pines when it actually used three EDUs.

“I monitor every building we have,” he said, adding that he had the data to back up his assertions.

He said that reevaluating EDUs based on actual usage would encourage businesses to save water and maintained that he supported the overall concept of EDUs.

“I support impact fees as long as they’re assessed and managed in a fair and equitable way,” he said.

Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins on Tuesday said that the issue was an emotional one and that members of the sewer committee — all of whom are county employees — didn’t always agree. He said he had no intention of taking any department head’s authority away.

“I’m just looking with the help of my colleagues to make the process better,” he said. “This is an attempt to make the process easier. We’ll never make it perfect.”

Bunting stressed that he still had numerous concerns with the resolution as proposed and made a motion to have it go back to the sewer committee. He said he wanted to see some of the commissioners attend the next meeting to do a line-by-line review of the resolution. Mitrecic agreed and said that a public hearing should be held when the resolution returned to the commissioners. The commissioners passed the motion unanimously.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

Alternative Text

Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.