Vacant Buildings Get Water Bills (With One Exception)

Cape Charles Wave

December 9, 2013

The minimum utility charge for any building in Cape Charles is $108 a month – whether or not a drop of water is consumed. In some cases, owners of vacant buildings have not paid a water bill for years, but the monthly charges continue to accrue. A long-vacant house on Harbor Avenue reportedly has an outstanding water bill of over $8,000.

But it’s not just vacant buildings that have to pay: if a property ever had a building on it, the monthly charges continue even if the building is demolished. The justification, according to Assistant Town Manager Bob Panek, is that 70 percent of water and sewer expenses are for fixed costs such as debt service and personnel that accrue whether or not a customer uses water.

That’s the case facing South Port Investors, who leased property from the Town in 2007 in preparation for construction of Cape Charles Yacht Center, now underway. The property included a building connected to Town water and sewer, but the structure subsequently was demolished.

Not until February of this year did South Port ask the Town to turn the water back on. But in accordance with Town code, officials demanded over $5,000 in back charges, including over $400 interest and penalties.

Town Code  Section 72-9.c states: “If a connection existed as of June 30, 2007, and the house or building has since been demolished, the owner shall continue to be liable for the minimum charges.”

Eyre Baldwin of South Port Investors asked Town Council to waive the utility charges given that the land had been vacant all those years. But Mayor Dora Sullivan expressed concern that doing so would set an expensive precedent: Many other Town properties also have the water turned off but continue to be billed.

And in addition to vacant buildings, Public Works Director Dave Fauber estimates there are about six properties in Town with no buildings that nevertheless receive monthly utility bills.


South Port has still not paid the outstanding water bill, and Town Council plans to revisit the issue sometime in the future.

As part of its continuing investigation surrounding the Town’s sale a year ago of the Old School in Central Park, the Wave requested copies of all water bills sent to the new owner. Town Clerk Libby Hume wrote back: “In response to your FOIA request, no water and sewer bills have been issued to the owner of the former school property located at 423 Plum Street.  Section 72-3 of the Cape Charles Town Code states, ‘Charges for water and sewer service shall commence immediately upon completion of the installation of the connection or upon the use of service.’  Bills for the construction account will commence when the building permit is issued.”

But the section quoted by the Clerk (click here) applies only to vacant land that has never included a structure. Section 72-9 leaves no room for misinterpretation:

Sec. 72-9. Liability for minimum charges.

(a) The owner of any house, building or property which is used for commercial, industrial and/or residential purposes and is connected to the system shall be liable for the minimum water and sewer charges.

(b) The owner of a vacant lot is not required to pay the minimum charges. Connection charges shall apply when a house or building is constructed on a qualifying vacant lot, per sections 70-35 and 70-42.

(c) If a connection existed as of June 30, 2007, and the house or building has since been demolished, the owner shall continue to be liable for the minimum charges. Connection charges shall not apply when the vacant lot is rebuilt.

The Old School in Central Park is not and will not be new construction and it has not been demolished. Water and sewer lines have been connected to the school for many years, and the developer has applied for historic rehabilitation tax credits.

If the owner of the Old School property had been billed monthly since the purchase, the total so far would be about $1,200, not including any penalties or interest.

According to Town Manager Heather Arcos, if a property owner has a seriously delinquent water bill, the Town puts a lien on the property and collects the amount due if the property is sold. That would appear not to apply to the Old School, since no water bills have been issued.

Giving the buyers of the Old School a free ride on utilities is part of a continuing pattern of behavior by elected Town officials and staff. In March 2012, Town Council voted to cut water and sewer connection fees by over $6,000 for each of the 17 one-bedroom apartments proposed to be built in the school, for a total savings to the developer of over $100,000.

Council subsequently voted to cut the connection fees for the Old School another 50 percent, saving the developer another $50,000. Council then agreed to give the developer $41,000 in insurance proceeds to apply toward the remaining connection fees. Additionally, Council overrode the Town requirement for connection fees to be paid when a building permit is issued.

The Virginia State Constitution (click here) states that “no private corporation, association, or individual shall be specifically exempted from the operation of any general law, nor shall a general law’s operation be suspended for the benefit of any private corporation, association, or individual.”



6 Responses to “Vacant Buildings Get Water Bills (With One Exception)”

  1. Geneva Smith on December 9th, 2013 8:02 am

    Here is how the water bill was explained to me: Whether the water is turned off or on, you get a minimum bill, so don’t turn the water off because you’ll be charged a reconnection fee when you turn it back on.

    Our house on Mason was turned into a duplex (via a dividing wall in the entry); however it had only one meter — but the town sent us two water bills. When I questioned it, I was told that is the town rule. I asked for a copy of the town rule, but was told that the town doesn’t give out copies of the town rule, you have to come to the office to read it yourself. We were also told that we better be sure that we wanted it to be a single family because the town wouldn’t allow us to turn it back into a duplex. I have since found out that every duplex isn’t treated this way; I guess we were given the “special.”

    I’ve always wondered how many water bills the Northampton Hotel receives. Anyone know?

  2. Deborah Bender on December 9th, 2013 8:25 am

    Just one more instance of the town officials giving special favors to Charon Ventures/Echelon. Now what the town needs to do is RETURN all of the money they have collected on all of the other vacant buildings. The people running this town have GIVEN the school to these “men of honor” and now they don’t seem to think that they should pay the water/sewer bills? I am so tired of these town officials catering to developers at the expense of homeowners. Enough is enough!

  3. James Young on December 9th, 2013 9:36 am

    I am planning to purchase a home in Cape Charles next spring for retirement. Am I to understand that whether or not the owner of the property consumes water or not, he still gets billed a minimum of $108 per month? Is my assumption correct?

  4. John Hickman on December 9th, 2013 10:47 am

    Mr. Young, you are correct.

  5. Tammi George on February 14th, 2014 11:51 am

    We own a house that we had vacant for about three years and had accrued $5,500 in water bill fees and interest and had no choice but to pay in full before they would turn it back on. I have to still watch the bills closely because they add late fees and interest at times I have paid the discount early payment fee. Nevermind the double tax on vehicles and triple increase in town taxes. I want to move out. And that’s sad because I like this town.

  6. Frankie Brady on February 14th, 2014 1:02 pm

    I can’t understand how the town can charge someone for something that they are not using. I can see paying property taxes if you are a owner of property and not living there, but being charged for water with it being turned off? I guess I’m missing something.