SNOW HILL– In a split vote, county officials decided not to let a Virginia convenience store hookup to Pocomoke City’s sewer system.
The Worcester County Commissioners voiced various concerns this week regarding Pocomoke City’s plans to provide sewer service to the Royal Farms just over the Virginia line in New Church. A motion to approve the required amendment to the Worcester County Water and Sewerage Plan failed with a 3-3 vote.
Commissioners who voted against the amendment cited the fact that the store was in a different state and criticized Pocomoke City Manager Jeremy Mason for signing a contract with Royal Farms before ever sharing the plan with the commissioners.
“I don’t think this body, or the county, has been treated fairly by this at all,” Commissioner Chip Bertino said. “In fact I would say we have been misdirected because we haven’t been provided with the information. Pocomoke entered into an agreement with Royal Farms long before we ever knew about this. It’s frustrating and angers me that they would come before us now and say we need to do this when they already gave agreement and didn’t even tell us.”
In December, the commissioners agreed not to hold a public hearing regarding Pocomoke City’s request to amend the water and sewer plan to allow it to connect Royal Farms to its sewer system. Nevertheless, the body held a public hearing on the amendment this week. Staff pointed out the Pocomoke Wastewater Treatment Plant was already taking septage from the store, as it was being hauled in twice a week. Rather than continue that, the store asked to tie in to the sewer line already serving the Virginia welcome center.
The commissioners were quick to point out documents submitted by Royal Farms Tuesday morning proved that the proposed arrangement had been in the works long before Mason submitted a formal request to the Worcester County Planning Commission. Bertino said he found out in an unrelated conversation with Mason that Royal Farms actually connected to the sewer line in October, before the planning commission even considered the amendment.
Staff confirmed the store had been advised its connection was illegal after that and had returned to hauling septage.
Commissioners also referenced a June letter and a September contract between Royal Farms and Pocomoke City allowing the hookup. Those documents, provided by Royal Farms this week, were not provided to the planning commission in November or to the commissioners in December when they discussed the issue.
“This has been fouled up from the beginning,” Commissioner Jim Bunting said.
Mason said he didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong.
“Those letters I gave to Royal Farms, I didn’t know at the time that Worcester County had to give us permission to do this,” he said. “It was not in my wheelhouse of knowledge to know that is what we’re supposed to do, to request an amendment to the comprehensive plan and to get permission to do this.”
Bertino said he’d take Mason at his word but asked why those letters hadn’t been provided to the county when application to the planning commission was made.
“Um I really can’t speak to that,” Mason said. “I really don’t know. I was asked to give when we made application all the paperwork we had … Perhaps I made an error in not doing that. I certainly wasn’t trying to cover anything up.”
Commissioner Josh Nordstrom said Mason had acknowledged there been some mistakes but that that shouldn’t prevent the project from moving forward. He said the Royal Farms provided Pocomoke residents with a 24-hour store to buy things like medicine in the middle of the night. He said the town had plenty of wastewater capacity to handle the store, as it had 2,400 EDUs and Royal Farms would use nine.
“I’m willing to forgive and take him at his word and move forward,” Nordstrom said. “This is something that’s important for the town and it’s important for everyone who is hooked into the Pocomoke water and wastewater system.”
Mason acknowledged that he knew the sewer line was supposed to be restricted to the welcome center but that Royal Farms had offered to help pay for the aeration system the Pocomoke wastewater system needed.
“It certainly was not all motivated by money, it was also motivated to help a neighboring business,” he said.
Commissioner Ted Elder said an email provided by Royal Farms showed that Mason had been involved in discussion about the water and sewer plan amendment back in December of 2020.
“What I do know now is my timelines got completely messed up during this process,” Mason said.
Pocomoke City Mayor Susan Harrison said Mason had made an honest mistake.
“When this all sifts down, even though mistakes were made we’re trying to improve Pocomoke City,” she said.
John Kemp, president and CEO of Royal Farms, told the commissioners there were three locations in Worcester County with another on the way in Ocean Pines. He said the septic at the New Church store failed in 2012 and despite a $200,000 replacement system failed again in 2019. He said the company hadn’t realized it was doing anything wrong when it connected after arranging the contract with Pocomoke.
“There’s no malfeasance on our part, we thought we were following the process,” he said.
He added that Royal Farms was a Maryland company that employed 42 Worcester County residents, five of whom worked in the New Church store.
John Pica, Royal Farms’ attorney, said the company negotiated in good faith. He referenced communication from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of Planning that referred to the situation as a public health issue.
“We’re just appealing to the mercy of the commission to ask that this amendment be approved,” he said.
The motion to approve the amendment failed, with Nordstrom, Commissioner Diana Purnell and Commissioner Joe Mitrecic in favor and Bertino, Bunting and Elder opposed.