COMMENTARY: $ewer $ystems — ‘The Rest of the Story’

sewer-signboard400By WAYNE CREED

July 27, 2013

As a kid, growing up with a dad that tended to tinker in the garage with the radio on, I remember lazy days, tinkering alongside him on a bike or Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine, all the while listening to the Paul Harvey show. I especially liked the section of the show “The Rest of the Story.”

As of July 22, Northampton County finalized the Southern Node commercial service area which will pump sewage to the Cape Charles treatment plan. The County’s PSA (Public Service Authority) has recommended a special taxing district for commercial property along Route 13. There is, however, “the rest of the story.”

Back in 2008 and into 2009, the Town of Cape Charles was faced with a dilemma: the wastewater plant was failing (although reports of its impending demise may have been slightly exaggerated), and without addressing the issue, harsh dealings from the Department of Environmental Quality were on the horizon. The Mayor, the assistant town manager, and the town manager should be commended for stepping up and getting in front of a serious problem.

The facts: Cape Charles, like all municipalities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, had to meet a specified nutrient waste load allocation by January 2011. If we did not meet this date, our current waste load allocation, which was based on a projected discharge of 500,000 GPD, would be reduced by half (along with possible fines).

But there is still more to the story. There were actually two competing plans on the table at the time: the current system, owned and operated by the Town, and a public private venture to be funded and managed by Webtide Partners, led by the concerns of Furlong Baldwin and Sons, and Joe Corrado.

Floating about was also the notion of a regional system to service Northampton County. In 2009, the Town and County held a wastewater summit. Then-supervisors Dave Burden and Spencer Murray posited lukewarm approvals in favor of a regional system, but one that was made up of several smaller plants; Burden also added that effluent should not be pumped back into the Bay, and that a water reuse plant should be at the forefront.

New Town sewage treatment plant cost about $19 million, with $14 million paid by government grants. (Wave photo)

New Town sewage treatment plant cost about $19 million, with $14 million paid by government grants. (Wave photo)


Batista Madonia, before the fall, was interested in bringing one of the packing houses to the Webster site, which he claimed would create 400-500 jobs. The concerns of then-Cheriton Mayor Bo Lewis are the same now as they were then: how would socioeconomically disadvantaged folks be able to pay the fees associated with the new system?

Fast forward to 2013. Many folks are apprehensive over current rate increases, and there have been attempts to paint Assistant Town Manager Bob Panek, the Mayor, Town Manger, and Town Council as either fools or fiends.

The rest of the story: Many of us were there when these decisions were being made. As far back as 2008, Bob Panek held several meetings and information sessions, yet if five people attended it was considered a big crowd. Mr. Panek even spent an afternoon with me in his office, going over the new wastewater proposal in detail. At the time, his door was open to anyone with concerns about what was going down. The majority of residents were happy and compliant, willing to accept the Town’s decision to assume ownership of the new plant.

Aside from one insane blogger (me), no one felt the Webtide proposal needed more consideration. First, the lagoon system at the Webster plant, with considerable rework and compliance adjustments, would have allowed for an excellent water reuse scenario. The location at the abandoned Webster property seemed more fitting and less obtrusive than right next to the Rosenwald School and entrance to the harbor.

But the main reason for my support was that in the end, whichever plan was used, rates would necessarily rise drastically, and that plant would eventually serve as the main southern node for a regional system — if a regional system did indeed spur development (as they are hoping it will now), it would be folks like the Webtide barons that would reap the benefits, so why not saddle them with the risk and debt service, instead of the hapless taxpayer?

In the end, Webtide did not possess the spiritual, intellectual, or financial capital to capture the hearts and minds of Cape Charles, so the Town (using grants to build for pennies on the dollar) held the course, opted for the Sterns & Wheeler design, and purchased the General Electric ZeeWeed membrane bioreactor system, a top of the line, extremely extendable system that uses  “ultrafiltration technology alongside biological treatment for a consistent, high quality effluent suitable for any reuse process.”

So here we are: the horse has already left the barn, and there’s no use squawking about increased fees now.  Hammering Bayshore Concrete to hook up (an employer that does more for our underserved population than anyone else) will hardly alleviate the pain. Making Bay Creek live up to its end of the bargain and pay its fair share may feel good, and may produce a light effluent of good karma, but the song will remain the same. If you want to live by the water, get used to paying a lot more to do so.

The dark question now is how we will manage the risk when a regional system is put into place, which may be happening sooner than we think. The political climate has changed since 2008 — the Chesapeake Bay has been gaining political clout, and every year the Chesapeake Bay Act has been sharpening its teeth. The health and restoration of the Bay is being taken more seriously in Washington than ever before.

Coastal communities like ours will bear the brunt of draconian measures intended to accelerate the restoration. With sea level rise beginning to expose and document issues with the septic systems that now litter the Eastern Shore, it is apparent that they will eventually become illegal, and coastal communities will be mandated to tie into regional systems with strict effluent standards (also, a more stringent 9 VAC 25-740, Water Reclamation and Reuse Regulation is rumored to be in the works).

The question becomes: As a community, do we try to get ahead of the problem, or do we take a wait and see approach, and then try and react as best we can once the hammer comes down?

What impact will a more developed Route 13 have on the Town, particularly our businesses? Will big boxes such as CVS or Chilli’s on the highway make it hard for family-owned businesses like Rayfield’s, Kelly’s and Brown Dog to compete?

With day-to-day business at hand, I’m skeptical that our staff and Town Council have the bandwidth to get a handle on this; however, trying to model future outcomes based on available data and current design scenarios is something our Planning Commission should certainly be involved in. Isn’t that why we appointed smart guys like Andy Buchholz, Dan Burke, Bill Stramm, and Michael Strub in the first place? Shouldn’t we be leveraging them on critical tasks such as this to ensure that future development meets our criteria for smart growth?

Firstly, what does the Town’s involvement in the Northampton PSA, and as the eventual southern node of a regional system, mean for us? The reality is that there are some folks that just cannot pay for this, and instead, this pain will be spread out across the County, with Cape Charles taking on a larger share.

Much the way the National Health Care law is being implemented, those that can pay will pay more to cover those that can’t. Is Cape Charles, especially those residents that have come here to retire, ready to assume that responsibility? Will increased capacity accelerate our need to expand our current plant, and who will be on the hook for that?

What impact will a more developed Route 13 have on the Town, particularly our businesses? Will big boxes such as CVS or Chilli’s on the highway make it hard for family-owned businesses like Rayfield’s, Kelly’s and Brown Dog to compete?

On the flip side, with the CBBT toll set to be lowered for daily commuters, increased infrastructure and amenities could be the catalyst that finally reverses the current census trend for a county that has been getting smaller and older. Could this new infrastructure create a better environment for industries such as the produce packing industry ($4 billion annually in U.S.), and will this boost to the economy mean more opportunity for the socioeconomically challenged segment of our community?

Could this same reversal also give our schools the nudge needed to return them to the catbird seat?  A stronger, more economically vital middle class is one of the key factors needed to create a more sustainable Northampton County school system.

Always be wary of what you wish for: What will an increase in development and a larger population mean for the rural way of life we currently cherish? Will Tanger outlet strip malls, Putt-Putt golf and more parking lots forever alter the Eastern Shore?

We live in a very fragile place, and it won’t take much to completely destroy it. A perfect storm is brewing. That hollowness you’re feeling derives from the realization that we really can’t trust either the Town or the County to do the right thing when it comes to shepherding the interests of the ordinary people. Given what Old School Cape Charles has discovered in the last 18 months, I would suggest sleeping with one eye open.

The trust and the thrill may be gone, yet on the technical front, we can still bridge the divide and tackle this issue. It is critical that we use basic economic and geographic analysis to model and vet our development plans for suitability and sustainability.

Instead of trying to pass off half-baked, insufficient, and ill-conceived notions as planning, isn’t it time that we finally develop a framework that will provide land-use planners at the Town and County the tools needed to design a smart growth plan that attempts to strike an intelligent balance between unfettered sprawl and restrictive no-growth policies? Richard Neutra, Ian McHarg, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Warren H. Manning have laid the geodesign groundwork.

Not everyone is going to agree on everything and every issue that faces our Town, but in this case, it is critical that we wake up, take this issue seriously, and demand accountability from the Town Council, staff, and the Planning Commission. Our future, our very way of life, and everything that we love about living on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, is at stake if we don’t develop a sustainable, smart growth policy that will strengthen the economy (and by extension our middle class families) while protecting the way of life we have come to cherish.

That’s the rest of the story.

Wayne Creed is president of Old School Cape Charles, LLC, and was a 2010 candidate for mayor.

Submissions to COMMENTARY are welcome on any subject relevant to Cape Charles. Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily of this publication.



2 Responses to “COMMENTARY: $ewer $ystems — ‘The Rest of the Story’”

  1. Thomas D. Giese on July 27th, 2013 9:53 am

    You may not agree with every position he takes on the issues, but his wholehearted commitment to the betterment of Cape Charles and the Eastern Shore earns him the Citizen of the Year Award.

  2. David Gay on July 27th, 2013 4:10 pm

    Mr. Creed has done a good job framing the issue that is facing all of us in Northampton County. Our town and county planning commissions have a tough job balancing smart growth and development. Hopefully they will find a way to maintain the rural village concept and still provide the needed modern infrastructure that is being imposed on us by Washington.