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Neighbors Raise Stink over Plant

One neighborhood's sewage treatment plant is about to change ownership or disappear.

Soon, when a toddler in the Harbor View neighborhood asks his parents where his "number two" goes when it’s flushed, the answer may not be as simple as usual.

Since the 1960s, the 169-home community in western Mason Neck has been served by its own small sewage treatment plant owned by Colchester Public Service, which is in turn owned by Utilities Inc., one of the largest privately-owned water and wastewater companies in the country.

The plant has prevented further development in the area simply by not being able to serve any more homes, and for the last 30 years or so, Fairfax County has subsidized this arrangement by making up the cost difference to customers. Utilities Inc. now charges $102 a month for each home, of which the county pays $81. However, the company has decided that this rate is insufficient and plans to cut the county out of the agreement and file with the Virginia State Corporation Commission to set its own rates as of Sept. 23.

Fairfax County, in turn, is determined to cut Colchester out of the picture.

AT A MEETING in Gunston Elementary School Wednesday, July 25, Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) explained to about 130 Harbor View homeowners that this could be accomplished in one of three ways. One is that the county could buy the system and take over operations. County staff expects to be asked for something in the neighborhood of $1.5 million for the plant and then to spend about $2.5 million for rehabilitation and $600,000 per year to operate and maintain the facility. On the other hand, hiring a contractor to operate the plant is expected to cost about $480,000 per year, after the plant has been purchased and refurbished.

The cheapest option would be for the county to pump the sewage and haul it to the nearby Norman Cole Wastewater Treatment Plant. The county has estimated the cost of constructing a "pump and haul" facility and upgrading the roads along what would become the truck route to be about $1.5 million, and the annual cost would be about $350,000 per year.

Under any option, residents would not pay more than the $21 paid by all Fairfax County citizens. "The bottom line is, we're going to make sure your rates are the same, no matter what we do," said Hyland. "The objective is not to let these people just do as they will."

County staff has recommended pump and haul as the most cost-effective option and also the most environmentally friendly, as the Norman Cole plant is more cutting-edge in its treatment process than Colchester. Dismayed by the prospect of a fleet of trucks driving in and out of the neighborhood, Harbor View residents made it clear that they would not be satisfied with the pump and haul option and would prefer the county to take over the plant. It remains up to Hyland to sell the rest of the Board of Supervisors on this course of action.

"These are businessmen," said Jimmie Jenkins, director of the county's Department of Public Works, adding that, in the course of negotiations, Utilities Inc. had suggested that it could justify raising rates as high as $160 per month. As for the price of the plant, he noted that the facility had not been well-maintained. "We think they’re inflating the price," said Jenkins. "We don’t think it’s worth what they’re asking for it."

Driving the point home, several residents complained of sewage backups during the meeting.

In a later phone interview, John Stover, general council to Utilities Inc., explained that the company had been losing money on the plant for "the last several years," and he expressed surprise at county assertions that Utilities Inc. was being unreasonable in either its asking price for the purchase of the plant or in seeking higher payment from customers.

"I'm sorry to hear them say that," said Stover. "We haven't petitioned the Corporation Commission for rates yet, so I don't see how we could be said to be unreasonable." He said the company would definitely seek a rate increase that would allow a "fair return" for its services. The commission would then examine the company's financial situation and determine whether the proposed rates were reasonable.

Stover said it was the first time he had heard the $1.5 million figure as a proposed selling price for the plant, but he added that the company would be amenable to selling for that amount. He acknowledged that there was a "big gap" between the county's and the company's estimates of the plant's value, but he said Utilities Inc. was confident that its asking price was fair.

As for the county's assertions that the plant had been allowed to fall into disrepair, Stover noted that the company had done what it had to do in order to keep the facility up to required standards. "Obviously, we're spending as little as we can, because we're in a losing position," he said. However, he said he was surprised at the county's estimate that the plant needed $2.5 million in repairs, an amount which he said seemed "far in excess of what would be required."

Residents expressed concern that the truck traffic of a pump and haul operation could diminish home values and pose a threat to children’s safety, but Hyland said he doubted real estate assessments would drop. Jenkins expressed confidence in the county’s truck drivers. He noted that pump and haul operations are already used in Clifton and in the nearby Gunston Heights and Wiley subdivisions.

The terms of the agreement that was struck between residents and the county in the 1970s, by which the county has subsidized the neighborhood’s sewer rates, were also brought up. "It seems to me this is on the county’s back," said resident Janet Carper. "Why are we being burdened with even thinking about pump and haul?" Under the payment arrangement, she said, the county had "promised the same kind of service we were getting at that time."

Hyland pointed out that the agreement had been made under different circumstances, when the county was trying to work with Colchester, while it is now trying to oust the company. "That is hardly the agreement we entered into," he said.

Resident Joe Policastro stood up and said, "We would like you, the county, to take the system over and run it."

"That’s the most expensive option," Jenkins said. Applause broke out.

Jenkins noted that the high price would be offset by a rise in sewer rates for all county residents. Asked what the increase would be, he estimated 50 cents to $1 per month.

"They all need to stand by the commitment the county made to this community," said resident Adrian Jansen, of other county residents. "Pump and dump is a renege on that agreement."

Hyland said he too wanted to keep the agreement as it stood, but he again warned that it could be difficult to persuade his fellow board members to support such a decision.

Asked how a private contractor hired to run the plant would improve services and stop sewage backups while being paid less than the county would spend to run the plant itself, Jenkins said, "If we take over, we’re going to operate it right, and we’re probably going to spend more than they are." This put an end to the debate.

"We want something long-term," said resident Dick Johns, adding that many of those in attendance had future generations in mind. "We want you to take over and do it right."