In Great Falls, "sewer" is the 5-letter word that no one wants to mention. The Great Falls Village Center's failing septic system has been the proverbial "elephant in the room" for quite some time, but the elephant has grown too large to be ignored, and starting next month, sewer will be mentioned quite a bit.
For the last two years, public officials, Fairfax County staff, and most residents and business owners, have been aware that the Village Center septic system will not last much longer. However, the solution to the problem is something that has divided the community into two camps — those who support bringing a sewer line into the Village Center, and those who do not.
Proponents of sewer argue that it is the only viable solution, and say that a sewer line will alleviate financial strain on current Village Center business owners, while simultaneously opening the door for some of the new "high water user" businesses that are currently barred from the Village Center due to its septic system's limitations. Businesses that are considered to be high water users — such as restaurants, hair salons and coffee shops — are often mentioned by residents as the type of retail that they would like to see added to their town center. Village Center tenants such as the Old Brogue and the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department are currently operating on a pump and haul system to handle their excess waste, and Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department Chief Steven Ruzila estimates that the department does pump and haul three to four times a week at the cost of $2-3000 per month.
Opponents of sewer fear that a sewer line will only pave the way for excessive commercial development that will ruin the small-town rural nature of Great Falls. Colvin Run Center has access to sewer, and a 22,000 square-foot office building is slated to be built there this year by local resident and commercial real estate developer Wayne Foley.
"That's a large building for that area, and I think that it's an object for a lesson on what the impact of sewer could be in the Village Center," said Jack Bowles, chair of the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) Waste Water Management subcommittee. "Right now, there's nothing in the Village Center even close to that size, but if you bring sewer in, over time, you can expect more of the same."
WITH THE SEPTIC system's failure looming on the horizon, and given the extremely controversial nature of the "Septic vs. Sewer" issue, the Great Falls Citizens Association executive Board of Directors designated its February general session meeting for community discussion of the topic. However, the issue of sewer has continually come up at general session meetings throughout the past year, and was also the main topic of discussion at a Great Falls Citizens Association "2020 Vision Project" business community focus group.
"I think the big thing that we need to address in Great Falls — and not in 2020 but now — is the disposal of sewage," said Wayne Foley, at the business community focus group meeting. "We can dance around it all we want, but it's not going to go away. There are some people out there who think there's going to be a magic bullet, or a magic septic system that's going to make it all go away, but no one has found it yet."
However, Jack Bowles disagrees. In April of 2006, Bowles and his fellow subcommittee members had an expert from the Virginia Department of Health tour the Great Falls Village Center septic system site with John Milgrim, environmental health supervisor for the Fairfax County Health Department Division of Environmental Health.
"Originally, he was going to tour the site and meet with the [GFCA] board afterwards, but that didn't happen because after he toured the site he did a briefing with John Milgrim's boss and was told that he was not allowed to speak with us," said Bowles. "He's a state employee and these are primarily county functions, so the state won't let him come in unless he was invited by the county."
Bowles said that he did have the opportunity to speak with the state expert privately.
"I talked to him afterwards and he was very clear that there were many, many on-site options," said Bowles. "There will always have to be some creative things done, but in terms of having appropriate primary and secondary treatment, and having adequate septic area, there's enough available space to accommodate all of the waste water that would ever come out of Great Falls."
Bowles says that septic systems have many advantages over sewer systems.
"In the end, it will probably be cheaper, faster and more environmentally protective than bringing a sewer line up Walker Road," said Bowles. "The truth is, if you do a septic system correctly, not one bit of pollutant will make it to the Potomac River or ground water... if you have a well designed primary treatment system, you can have a secondary charcoal sand filter, and basically the water could be such a quality that it could be a potable water and the septic field could last a long time — theoretically, it could last forever."
ORIGINALLY, the January Great Falls Citizens Association meeting was designated for discussion of "Sewer vs. Septic," and Bowles had hoped to have the county give permission for the state expert to attend and discuss alternative solutions. However, the "Sewer vs. Septic" topic was pushed back to the February Great Falls Citizens Association general session. Bowles still hopes to have the state expert attend, and is simply awaiting word from the county. Milgrim will attend the February meeting and will discuss realistic on-site options. In addition, Great Falls Citizens Association Land Use committee chair John Ulfelder will go over possible development impacts of sewer, and Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois will also be in attendance.
Bowles and several other Great Falls Citizens Association board members have met with DuBois and her staff to discuss the issue of sewer. DuBois has repeatedly said that she will stand by whatever option the citizens of Great Falls decide to support, whether it be sewer or septic. However, Bowles said that her office has also asked that the Great Falls Citizens Association provide a specific plan should the favored option be septic.
"But we're just a little civic association and we don't have the money to pay for a study, and they won't accept the advice of the experts we brought in," said Bowles. "They keep turning their back on us, and I don't think it's fair."