Va. Convenience Store’s Plan To Connect To Pocomoke Sewer Moves Ahead

Va. Convenience Store’s Plan To Connect To Pocomoke Sewer Moves Ahead
The Royal Farms store in New Church is pictured. File photo by Bethany Hooper

SNOW HILL– A Virginia convenience store is expected to be able to hook up to Pocomoke City’s sewer system following a decision by county officials this week.

The Worcester County Commissioners on Tuesday voted 4-3 to amend the Worcester County Water and Sewerage Plan to include the Royal Farms store just over the state line in New Church, Virginia. While Commissioner Josh Nordstrom, who represents the Pocomoke area, said the connection would avert an environmental disaster, those in opposition said it was setting a precedent.

“We are subsidizing Accomack County’s growth if we allow this to happen,” Commissioner Chip Bertino said. “We want growth in our county.”

Bob Mitchell, the county’s director of environmental programs, told the commissioners the Royal Farms in Virginia had a failing septic system and wanted to connect to Pocomoke’s sewer system. To do so, an amendment to the county’s water and sewer plan needed to be approved by the commissioners. Though the amendment was considered by the commissioners in January and failed to pass with a 3-3 vote, Commissioner Bud Church, who was absent that day, asked that the issue be reconsidered.

Mitchell told the commissioners the store planned to connect to the sewer line installed in 2010 to serve the Virginia Rest Area Plaza.

He noted that the Worcester County Planning Commission had forwarded the proposed amendment to the commissioners with a favorable recommendation.

“As it stands today, the current on-site system serving the property has failed,” Mitchell said. “Pocomoke City Wastewater Treatment Plant is already receiving their sewage as part of their septage receiving flow as the store is on a pump and haul arrangement at the present time. The use of the current septic system is functioning as a holding tank which needs pumping out every few days. They lack a sufficient repair option within their property boundary.”

Attorney Mark Cropper, representing Royal Farms, said the store had tried to replace its septic system but had been advised its only viable option was connecting to the sewer line. Jeff Harman, an engineer with Becker Morgan Group, said runoff from the store’s septic system flowed north into the Pocomoke River watershed.

“By placing the septage in a force main rather than having a septic system there will be the elimination of the possibility for an overflow,” he said.

Cropper acknowledged that the issue was controversial. He said some of those in opposition to the proposal felt Worcester County shouldn’t be providing a benefit to a property in another state.

“This is not the first time a similar situation has arisen,” he said.

According to Cropper, more than 200 residential properties in northern Worcester County are served by utilities in Delaware. He said the assessed value of those properties exceeded $78 million.

“Worcester County couldn’t provide the necessary utilities but the state of Delaware is doing so,” he said. “We, Worcester County, are the beneficiary of the generosity of the state of Delaware for which we receive the tax benefit… In this particular case, we’re asking that one property in neighboring Virginia receive the same generosity and cooperation from Worcester County. It pales in comparison to the benefit Worcester County receives from Delaware doing essentially the same thing.”

He stressed that Pocomoke’s wastewater treatment plant was already receiving the sewage.

“There is no benefit—economically, socially, morally, legally—to seeing this location shut down by a denial of this amendment,” he said.

Bishopville resident Rick Wells, a member of the planning commission and the county’s former head of environmental programs, said those houses were parts of developments that were primarily in Delaware but extended to Worcester County. He said his concern with the Royal Farms proposal was that the property was not Maryland’s responsibility but rather a responsibility of the state of Virginia and Accomack County.

“If there’s any agreement, it should be between the states and the counties,” he said.

Wells said that if the Royal Farms connection was approved he expected other properties in the area to seek connections to the line.

South Point resident Stephen Katsanos agreed with much of what Wells said. He said that was a growing corridor that would see more economic development and suggested regional solution should be developed by the various governments involved.

“I’m a little offended when the applicant holds a shotgun to our head and says they’re going to close down this location if they don’t get this sewage hookup.”

Nordstrom pointed out that Katsanos lived in South Point, at the northern end of the county.

“If there is an environmental disaster on the state line that flows into the Pocomoke watershed, will you have to boil your water?” he said.

When Katsanos said he would not, Nordstrom asked if he’d attended the hearing of his own volition. Katsanos said he had.

Jeremy Mason, city manager for Pocomoke, said the fee Royal Farms was paying would enable Pocomoke to make needed improvements to its wastewater treatment plant. He said those improvements were needed whether Royal Farms connected or not.

Several commissioners asked if Pocomoke had the needed permission from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to make the connection. Harman said the project had VDOT approval. Commissioner Chip Bertino pointed out that the city had to have approval from VDOT as well.

Commissioner Jim Bunting reminded his peers that Mason had permitted the connection initially without county oversight.

Bertino asked if Royal Farms had communicated with Accomack County regarding the failing septic.

“Accomack County does not have jurisdiction,” Harman said. “It is the Virginia Department of Health. We’ve been working with them for several years.”

He said it was that department’s opinion that another septic system wasn’t a viable option for the site.

“You can talk about the environmental impact, and I recognize that that’s important, but that is not what this is about,” Bertino said. “This is about economics. And this is about the fact that it’s costing your client, Royal Farms, more money to pump and haul to the Pocomoke plant.”

He asked why the store wouldn’t just move across the state line.

“That’s a business decision,” Cropper said.

Bertino replied that was his point. He said the store did have a significant presence in Worcester County with other locations but that was because those locations generated revenue. He said that as long as the Royal Farms was in New Church, Worcester County wasn’t getting property tax revenue from it.

Church said he didn’t see any downside to providing the store with a connection.

“I see it as a good neighbor policy,” he said.

Bunting said that when the line had been extended into Virginia, it had been done through an agreement with the state, not a private business. He said he was prepared to contact the Office of the Maryland Attorney General regarding the situation if the amendment was approved.

Bertino made a motion not to approve the amendment. It failed with only the support of Bertino, Bunting and Commissioner Ted Elder. A subsequent motion to approve the amendment, contingent on the necessary approval from VDOT, passed with a 4-3 vote, with Bertino, Bunting and Elder in opposition. Commissioner Joe Mitrecic suggested that the motion include Worcester County reaching out to Accomack County to discuss this as well as fire and EMS issues.

“We have a lot to discuss with Accomack,” he said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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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.