Officials Urge Action On Airport Water Extension Project

SALISBURY – An effort to advance a water main extension project at the airport highlighted a meeting of the Wicomico County Council this week.

Less than a month after tabling two agreements that would have allowed a water main extension project to proceed at the Salisbury airport, the county council this week fielded comments from community leaders requesting the resolutions be put back on the agenda for discussion and possible action.

“The council process of pointing fingers and not governing has to stop,” Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Chambers wrote. “There needs to be real leadership on this issue, a project that should have sailed through as our neighboring jurisdictions seem to have no trouble getting public works projects with state money built.”

Last November, Wicomico County secured $4.4 million in funding from the state’s Board of Public Works to run a water main from the Wor-Wic Community College water tower to the airport campus.

Before construction could begin, however, the city – which owns the water tower – required a pre-annexation agreement and water system agreement for the extension of water utility service to the airport.

The approval of the two agreements would be the county’s final step to begin construction on a water main extension project that would enhance fire protection service in the area, address water quality issues at the airport and increased development potential at the airport’s business park.

During a legislative session earlier this month, however, the council voted 4-3 to table the agreements until more information could be provided to nearby residents. Some members of the council called for a public hearing to further discuss the matter.

“The citizens on that side of the county heard about this pre-annexation agreement and they do not know exactly what that means,” Councilman Joe Holloway said. “I think you need public hearings on this or you can have a town hall to explain it. That’s why I’m asking for a vote to table.”

In a public comment portion of Tuesday’s virtual meeting, community leaders called on the council to move forward with a public hearing and vote on the two resolutions. Greater Salisbury Committee President and CEO Mike Dunn urged the council to do what was necessary to advance the project.

“What matters now is moving this airport water project forward without useless delay,” he wrote. “In these unsettling times, the last thing we need to be is the county that had to give the state of Maryland its monies back because we couldn’t get a project off the ground.”

Greg Padgham, executive director of the Tri-County Council, also offered his support for the project. He argued the water main extension would bring economic resilience, job creation and new infrastructure to the Lower Shore.

“In contrast to other regional assets, the size and scale of the economic impact to the Lower Shore of a robust regional airport would be profound and far-reaching and would impact a diverse and wide range of economic sectors,” he wrote.

The council this week also heard from residents concerned about the pre-annexation agreement between the county and the city.

Eric Jones, president of Kilbirnie Estates Homeowners Association, requested a public hearing or town hall where citizens could share their concerns and have their questions answered.

“Members of the community I represent have voiced their concerns of the annexation of the water main proposed along the western border of our community on Walston Switch Road,” he said. “I do not speak for all in the community, but I proudly call this place home and I would like to voice my concerns about possible repercussions that the water extension may have today and years from now.”

Walston Switch Road resident Jessica Peters said she opposed the pre-annexation agreement.

“As a property owner that would one day be negatively impacted by the proposed airport water pre-annexation agreement, I am requesting you to please vote no should it come up again,” she wrote. “None of the properties between the water tower and the airport should be forced into being part of the city, not today, not tomorrow, not next year, not 7,300 or 10,950 days from now, not ever. There must be other options and we the people deserve to know what they are and why they are not being presented or pursued.”

Councilman Bill McCain noted this week the pre-annexation agreement required to move the project forward was a routine agreement. He said the city required such agreements when providing water service outside the municipality. McCain said approving the two agreements was critical, as a contract to begin construction will expire on May 12.

“This very well might be the most important economic development project that our region has experienced in decades, and it’s actually at this point a very straight-forward project …,” he said. “Time is of the essence. We need to get this on the agenda.”

Councilman Josh Hastings and Councilman John Cannon agreed.

“My opinion is when you don’t allow these resolutions to come to the table, you don’t allow the benefit of the citizens nor the seven members of this council to even discuss these issues politically,” Cannon said. “We could have spent a lot of time today discussing these issues and most likely answer a lot of the questions the public has.”

Holloway, however, said he wanted to keep the two resolutions tabled until a public hearing was arranged.

“Until we get a public hearing arranged – and I mean an actual public hearing and not a Zoom meeting – and get the facts out there, I don’t think we should move forward on it,” he said.

Council President Larry Dodd and Councilwoman Nicole Acle agreed to a public hearing.

“I think we all have the same end goal of water at the airport and working toward that,” Acle said. “Trying to get a public hearing to address the citizens’ concerns is at the top of my agenda.”

Following Tuesday’s county council meeting, County Executive Bob Culver issued a statement on the council’s actions.

“The County Council’s decision today is not only disappointing but it is also misguided and based on false assertions,” he wrote. “I want to thank Councilmen McCain, Hastings and Cannon for their efforts to bring some semblance of reason to the discussion. … The hysteria that certain Council members have created is inexcusable and not in our citizens’ best interests. And it is also counter-productive to our economy at a time when economic stimulus is clearly needed.”

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.