In Great Falls "sewer" has become known as the five-letter word that no one wants to say out loud. However, next week, residents will be given the opportunity to discuss the word out in the open.
On Tuesday, Feb. 13, the Great Falls Citizens Association will hold its general membership meeting at the Great Falls Grange. The topic will be "Sewer vs. Septic," and residents will hear from Anish Jantrania of the Virginia Department of Health and Craig Benson of American Water. In addition, Great Falls Citizens Association Waste Water Management committee chair Jack Bowles, and Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois will also speak at the meeting.
"It's going to be an open discussion," said Bowles.
There is currently no sewer line in the commercial district known as the Great Falls Village Center. The retail stores, restaurants, Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department and Great Falls Elementary School all dispose of their waste water via septic fields. The absence of sewer is one reason why Great Falls has managed to hold on to its semi-rural nature, while the rest of Fairfax County has teemed with growth. Septic fields can only handle so much, thus, properties without sewer access are under lower-density zoning regulations.
However, septic fields have a shelf-life and are doomed to eventual failure. When a septic system fails, a new septic field must be used. Although most of the businesses in the Great Falls Village Center are still operating smoothly, some are already dealing with the consequences of a failed septic system. Both the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department and the Village Center 7-Eleven are currently operating on a pump and haul system to dispose of their waste water. In addition, a moratorium on "high water users" is in place — which means that new businesses such as coffee shops, dentists and restaurants will not be coming to the Great Falls Village Center until the current waste water management situation is resolved.
THOSE IN FAVOR of bringing a sewer line to the Great Falls Village Center say that it will breathe life into the community's commercial district. But many residents fear that the introduction of a sewer line will only pave the way for the kind of excessive development that the community has made a point of avoiding.
However, Great Falls resident and commercial real estate developer Wayne Foley says that sewer will not have as drastic of an impact on development as people assume. He argues that it is the lack of a sewer line that is hurting the Great Falls business district.
"We should worry — not about it looking like a Tysons [Corner] — but about it looking like a Wal-Mart, all boarded up," said Foley. "There is no more commercial space left in Great Falls, so what you see is what you get ... this is never going to be Tysons Corner — it has to be the voting citizens that change the zoning."
Foley said that he thinks the residents of Great Falls should find out the exact implications of a sewer line.
"The citizens need to do an actual study as to what's here now, and what's the square footage that could be there if sewer is brought here, and what could change," said Foley.
Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois has repeatedly said that she will only support a sewer line in Great Falls if it is what the citizens tell her they want.
LAST YEAR, Bowles' Waste Water Management committee invited Jantrania to tour the Great Falls commercial district site. After the tour, Bowles spoke with Jantrania privately.
"He was very clear that there were many on-site options," said Bowles. "I'm excited because I think there's an opportunity for Great Falls to do something very unique and innovative and really be a model for other communities ... in the end, it will probably be cheaper, faster and more environmentally protective than bringing a sewer line up Walker Road."
Jantrania told Bowles that he has seen success with a newly developed septic system technology which has sealed septic tanks flowing into a charcoal sand filter system, which then puts potable water out into the septic field.
"There are modern technologies and new kinds of treatment systems, and this is not theoretical, it's happening all over the country," said Bowles.