COMMENTARY: Support PSA for a Cleaner Eastern Shore


September 21, 2013

Assistant Town Manager Bob Panek received a universally chilly reception September 16 at the Cheriton Fire Hall when he explained plans to use the Town’s wastewater plant as the southern node of a semi-regional wastewater system. But when so many people around here agree with each other, it should raise a giant red flag that something is wrong.

I agree that at the current time, Cape Charles should not engage with the Public Service Authority to run pipe out to the newly created Economic Tax Zone along Route 13 — but for different reasons than have been voiced by others.

A major red herring is that supplying wastewater treatment to Route 13 and Cheriton would somehow cause economic stress to Cape Charles businesses. There is a notion that a Rite-Aid or CVS may open to compete with Rayfield’s, yet in this economic climate, chain stores tend to stick to locations that minimize risk. Even with peak summer traffic, there doesn’t appear that there are the demographics to support a chain like that, and companies like CVS only survive if they can subsume and assimilate. That is, it would only be viable if they could assume Rayfield’s base — a difficult task that may seem too risky after a thorough cost-benefit analysis.


Food Lion, and how it supposedly killed the stores in town, is another red herring being bandied about as proof that development on Route 13 will ultimately harm Cape Charles.

Food Lion is one of the few giant retailers willing to move in and serve rural, underdeveloped communities. With price, selection, and service, they do make it harder for smaller grocers to compete. Cheaper prices for lower-income folks, as well as being one of our biggest employers, seems like a decent trade-off.

Shore Treasures, a small grocer in Cape Charles, also proves that there is still room in town for smart, energetic retailers willing to think out of the box. I for one have been happy to pay a few more cents to buy milk, bread, or great deli sandwiches from them just to save the trip up to the highway.

The shops and restaurants in Cape Charles are unique, and they function as part of Cape Charles as a destination. Mexican, Chinese, and fast food restaurants on the highway have had little or no effect on the Shanty, Kelly’s or Aqua.

The renovated Peacock Moter Inn, as well as the other motels just outside town, also don’t seem to have deterred the folks that have chosen Cape Charles as a summer rental destination.

Another concern is that increased development may cause the new sewer plant to reach capacity too soon. I’d like to see more data, and possibly a model of when and what it would take for this to occur.

When Mr. Panek chose this technology, he did so with expansion in mind. Panek can speak more to this than I, but expansion doesn’t mean building a new plant, but more just enhancing and expanding the current ability to process more material, mainly by adding and/or upgrading the filters. Expansion may happen several times during the lifetime of this plant, but it is something that has already been taken into account during the planning phase of the project.

The only possible argument I have against a regional system is that the current agreement between the Town and the PSA leans too far in favor of the County. The County appears to want to put all the maintenance and upgrade costs on Cape Charles, and puts too heavy a burden on Cape Charles residents, while at the same time, may place a reciprocal burden on lower-income folks that will not be able to afford sewer/water bills.

All this aside, the mechanics are relatively easy to manage, and have been accomplished in other areas of the State (Chesapeake, Southhampton). If the Town, the PSA, and the County can hammer out a better alternative (along with an intelligent, strict smart growth policy), then the pipes should be run to the highway, and the Cape Charles plant should serve as the southern node of a regional system. (It should be noted that I favored building a regional system four years ago, with the main node located in the Webster property in Cheriton (Webtide).)

After composting the red herrings, the main issue for Northampton County and the Eastern Shore is that the septic fields are failing, and each month they are leaching contaminants into our creeks and, eventually, the Bay. This has to end. Eventually, the federal government, along with our DEQ, backed by the new Chesapeake Bay Act, will mandate that we retire all septic systems and replace them with a regional wastewater system that will adhere to strict effluent standards.

Core samples, tide gauge readings, and most recently, satellite measurements tell us that over the past century, the global mean sea level (GMSL) has risen 4 to 8 inches. The annual rise over the past 20 years has been 0.13 inches a year, twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years. Sea level rise is also accelerating the failure rate of septic systems in coastal communities like ours.

In septic systems, wastewater drains from toilets and sinks into an underground tank, then through porous pipes in a leach field, where surrounding sand filters out bacteria and other pathogens. Microbes in the dirt break down organic and inorganic wastes, such as nitrogen.

In conventional septic systems, wastewater treatment tends to be inefficient, and untreated sewage can end up polluting nearby water sources. Tracking these underground plumes has been a difficult task, but recent work by researchers (mainly at Stanford University) has exposed just how damaging this underground flow is to the coastal water resources.

The main goal of the PSA, if it is to be successful, is to find a way to implement a regional system that will create a cleaner Eastern Shore, without burying the residents of Cape Charles and the County with more debt and unreasonable taxes (in the form of extremely higher rates). In recent months, there has been movement in Washington to work more closely with coastal communities to help achieve this goal.

In reality, though, the more affluent residents of Cape Charles need to be prepared to pay a bit more to accomplish this. The business community must also be willing to do its part to make this happen.

One of the main reasons people choose Cape Charles and Northampton County as a destination is because of the surrounding natural beauty. It is our most precious resource, and if we want to live and work by the water, it is our duty, our contract with this land, that we do whatever we can to protect it.

We should support the PSA’s efforts to build a regional system, while at the same time keeping elected officials’ feet to the fire in regards to smart growth policy. If we don’t take this opportunity to ensure a cleaner, healthier Eastern Shore for the next generation, who will?

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.



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