Divided Commission Votes Against OC’s Sewer Offer To Diakonia; Expanded Transitional Housing Project’s Future In Jeopardy

Divided Commission Votes Against OC’s Sewer Offer To Diakonia; Expanded Transitional Housing Project’s Future In Jeopardy
Diakonia's main house on Old Bridge Road is pictured. The nonprofit has plans for a new facility on Stephen Decatur Highway that will expand its food pantry and housing programs. Photo by Bethany Hooper

SNOW HILL – Diakonia will not be able get sewer capacity from the Town of Ocean City following a decision by county officials this week.

On Tuesday, a motion in front of the Worcester County Commissioners to support the nonprofit Diakonia’s plan to use sewer capacity from Ocean City for a new facility on Route 611 failed with a 3-4 vote. Opponents of the agreement between Diakonia and the Town of Ocean City said it wasn’t fair to other entities in West Ocean City that have been waiting for sewer capacity.

“I think the question is much larger than Diakonia,” Commissioner Chip Bertino said.

After the Town of Ocean City advised the county in November that it was willing to provide Diakonia with the sewer capacity needed for its planned expansion, Diakonia officials said in December the issue still hadn’t been resolved. In order for the connection to take place, the county would need to modify its service area. Commissioner Joe Mitrecic brought the issue up last month and the Diakonia request was included on Tuesday’s agenda.

Before it came up, however, the commissioners voted unanimously to begin talks with the Town of Ocean City regarding the possibility of the town granting the county sewer capacity since Mystic Harbour service area is at maximum capacity.

“In light of the Mystic Harbor service area reaching maximum sewer capacity, thereby limiting development in that area, staff would like to open conversations with the Town of Ocean City to work out a broader agreement on accessing additional capacity in a mutually beneficial way,” the memo to the commissioners read.

Following that vote, Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young said staff was seeking guidance regarding the Town of Ocean City’s offer to provide sewer capacity to a new Diakonia facility.

“Diakonia does a tremendous service to all of Worcester County,” Mitrecic said. “The Town of Ocean City recognizes that and wanted to be a partner in helping the citizenry of Worcester County that need the services from Diakonia. That’s why they offered up this sewer flow for nothing basically. It’s the right thing to do. I think it’s the right thing for us to do to move forward with this … to take care of the paperwork to make this happen.”

Mitrecic said the nonprofit had grants and was ready to fundraise for the new facility but needed to acquire EDUs (equivalent dwelling units) to move forward.

“Right now, we’re holding up something that’s really going to help the people of the county,” he said.

Commissioner Eric Fiori agreed that Diakonia was a great organization.

“All the work they do is really well done. It improves our county. But we also have to look at how we got in this situation to start with,” Fiori said. “We have inadequate flow on 611, from tons of approvals through the years. The level playing field is something we have to acknowledge as county leadership. We can’t give one project an advantage.”

Fiori said there could be another project waiting for EDUs that would bring hundreds of jobs to the area. He said it shouldn’t be up to the commissioners to decide which project was more important.

“That’s why we’re going to enter talks with the Town of Ocean City,” he said.

Commissioner Ted Elder asked if there was a cost to approving the request.

“On our end it’s just staff time,” Young said. “Not saying that won’t be significant but that’s part of their jobs. There’s no real cost to us here.”

Mitrecic said Diakonia wasn’t asking for anything other than the county’s approval.

“You all may have a lot more faith that Ocean City’s going to open up their sewer to West Ocean City but I don’t have that faith,” he said. “I sat on that council. I remember the days when the county was asked to participate in the upgrade of the sewer plant over there and they said no. The people in the Town of Ocean City paid for that. Nobody else in Worcester County paid for that upgrade.”

Mitrecic stressed that the town was not going to provide flow to businesses that were outside the resort and would compete with businesses in the Town of Ocean City. He added that Diakonia had taken the initiative to make the request to the Town of Ocean City.

“I imagine anybody else could go ask Ocean City for that flow,” he said.

“You just said they would not give it to anyone else,” Fiori responded. “How is that level?”

Mitrecic said the town made its own decisions.

“You want to give everybody out there flow through OC in order for it to be a level playing field. The county had that chance,” he said, referencing discussions that occurred previously between the president and vice president of the commissioners and Ocean City officials.

“I don’t know where those talks went but they must have gone south at some point,” he said.

Bertino, who with Commissioner Jim Bunting and county staff met with Ocean City leaders, said there had been problematic restrictions that would have been attached to any flow the county could get from Ocean City.

“The conversations really got no further, that’s why we had the conversation a few minutes ago to restart those conversations,” he said.

Bertino said the issue was bigger than Diakonia and its request.

“One of the realities is people who have their businesses or reside within county limits should not have to go to Ocean City or anybody else to determine what they can and can’t do with their land,” he said. “The only guardians of the county’s interests within our jurisdiction are the seven of us.”

Bertino said no other entity should control the growth of the county.

“That’s the bottom-line issue here,” he said, stressing that the county should have authority over development within the county.

He added that he was hopeful Ocean City officials would keep an open mind in discussing sewer capacity with county leadership.

“If we don’t come to some sort of agreement, it would be unfortunate because Ocean City and the county have objectives that overlap,” he said.

Commissioner Caryn Abbott said she thought that negotiating with Ocean City for sewer capacity in general was the better way to go. She agreed with Fiori that there were other shovel ready projects in the West Ocean City area that were just waiting for EDUs.

“We should try to negotiate with Ocean City to be able to hopefully accommodate the ones that have been on the waiting list and Diakonia,” she said.

Elder said he felt that in the future the county needed to tie all its sewer together.

“I think they need to have interconnectability and we could increase flow in other ways then,” he said. “It would put the control right back in the county’s hands. I’d like to see a plan going forward that we make all the water and sewer in the whole county one entity. It would simplify everything.”

Young said staff members were working toward that but it was complicated because different service areas had different debts and grants and loans.

“We’re trying to figure out what would be the ideal optimized way of bringing them all in so it isn’t done on the back of any one service area,” Young said. “There’s a lot of benefit of putting it under one roof.”

Young said he’d talked to other jurisdictions in the state that had done that and found they had not regretted the change.

“We are working on it, it’s just, it’s a tall order and a big knot to untangle but we’re going to try to figure out the best way of doing that,” he said.

Bertino, going back to Mitrecic’s reference regarding the county’s choice decades ago not to get involved in the town’s sewer upgrade, said it was a shortsighted decision.

“Here we are now 30 years later in a situation we do not have the capacity to meet the need of the development or the proposed development in an area of this county,” he said. “I would very much like that 30 years from now the commissioners who are sitting here in our place will not have to deal with what we’re having to contend with at this point. That we are more forward looking and we are resolving a situation that does not tie the hands of developers, property owners and the government 30 years hence. Hopefully the conversations with Ocean City will be productive.”

Resort leaders, however, expressed  their disappointment in the county’s Diakonia decision at their own meeting Tuesday night. Mayor Rick Meehan said the town had agreed to work with Diakonia because of the valuable services the nonprofit provided to the community and because it was the right thing to do.

“Some of the commissioners didn’t think they should be allowed to authorize sewer allocation to Diakonia without doing it to other properties in West Ocean City,” he said. “I think the town, we were unanimous in doing that. We felt this was a nonprofit that services Ocean City.  We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do. There’s certainly no monetary gain in this for the Town of Ocean City. It’s disappointing the commissioners didn’t recognize that and support this.”

Voting for allowing Diakonia to use Ocean City’s sewer capacity were Mitrecic, Elder and Commissioner Diana Purnell, while voting against were Abbott, Bertino, Bunting and Fiori.

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.