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Time To Make A Decision

Experts advise Great Falls community to hire consultant to resolve "Septic vs. Sewer" question.

In the three years that Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois has been in office, she has seen few special exception building projects in Great Falls.

"There was one special exception at Riverbend Park, Commerce Bank dropped their application and I think the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) only heard one case in three years, and that was St. Catherine's church," said DuBois.

Still, DuBois recognizes that many residents of Great Falls are wary of anything that could potentially bring more development to their semi-rural community, which is why she did her best to allay such reservations at last week's Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) meeting on the issue of "Septic vs. Sewer."

"I know there's fear out there — there's fear of greater development," said DuBois. "But nothing has changed in Great Falls in terms of density since the Comprehensive Plan was established in 1975."

As outlined in the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan, Great Falls has very limited commercial and residential development, with most residential plots limited to one house per acre.

"Your Master Plan is what controls your development level and believe me, this community has always gone with low density," said DuBois at the March 15 "Septic vs. Sewer" meeting. "Great Falls is not going to get more dense — you control your destiny. The Board of Supervisors does not impose changes on you — we're here to help you in any way we can."

DuBois made her comments in light of growing concerns about the community dilemma over whether or not to bring a sewer line to the Great Falls Village Center commercial district. The area is currently operating on a 25-year-old septic system that is doomed to eventual failure, and two sites — the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department and the 7-Eleven — already have failed septic systems and

are currently using a costly pump and haul service to dispose of their waste.

WHILE MANY LOCAL business owners and developers are in favor of bringing a sewer line into the Great Falls commercial district, other residents fear that a sewer line will pave the way for unwanted development in the community. One such resident is Jack Bowles, chair of the Great Falls Citizens Association Wastewater Management committee. Bowles' concerns about the impacts of a sewer line inspired him to arrange for several experts in the field to discuss alternative

options at last week's meeting on septic verses sewer.

Anish Jantrania, a technical services engineer with the Virginia Department of Health, spoke in detail about the current technological advances and options in on-site wastewater management systems. Jantrania explained that septic systems that use sand filters and treat wastewater on a much more sophisticated level than septic systems of old, are far superior in terms of their shelf life and their impact on the environment.

"The sand filter keeps the soil in good shape, and once you treat that wastewater to that secondary or third level, the soil just becomes a conduit for that water," said Jantrania. "The soil remains clean after five years, 10 years and 15 years."

Jantrania showed examples of various communities and businesses that are currently using such on-site wastewater management systems with great success — including a 20,000-square-foot residence in Canada that produces 1,200 gallons of wastewater per day.

"It's pretty phenomenal what you can do with these treatment systems," said Jantrania.

ACCORDING TO HIM, such on-site wastewater management systems require only limited maintenance, with solids only needing to be pumped out every three to five years. However, they do need daily monitoring, which can be done via a remote monitoring system. Should something go wrong with the system, any electromechanical problems would need to be resolved within a day or two to avoid major damage.

The third requirement for an on-site wastewater management system is that it be easily accessible.

"You cannot just bury it underground," said Jantrania.

The estimated cost of an on-site system for a 4,000-square-foot home can range anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000.

While many of those in attendance at the Thursday meeting were intrigued by the possibilities of installing on-site systems throughout Great Falls, many also remained skeptical of the feasibility of opting for on-site systems in lieu of a sewer line.

Resident and commercial real estate developer Wayne Foley said that he imagined that most businesses would want some sort of written guarantee if they were to commit to the use of an expensive on-site septic system.

"These guys in Great Falls have heard all these promises for years, but not one of these guys has stepped up to the plate and said 'here's an agreement, here's a contract and here's an irrevocable letter of credit," said Foley. "Twenty-five years ago we all sat here and agreed to put the Center on an experimental system, and we've been hearing about the silver bullet for several years now."

Craig Benson, director of Mid-Atlantic Operations for the American Water Company, said that Great Falls has several options for resolving its looming wastewater management crisis. The Village Center can connect to a sewer line, set up active treatment systems at each site that needs one, or set up a cluster system of on-site treatment systems.

"But you need to have a professional who knows this business come in and look at your situation and tell you what the most cost effective solution is for you," said Benson, who handles both septic system and sewer accounts for American Water. "You need to get an expert out here and I think the county should pay for it."

JANE STRAUSS, Fairfax County School Board representative for the Dranesville District, attended last week's meeting and said that, whatever decision the community makes, she hopes that they make it soon as she is concerned about the upcoming renovations scheduled for Great Falls Elementary School.

"We're very eager for this community to resolve its sewer issues," said Strauss. "You need a school and we were hoping that any questions would be resolved before we started planning for the school."

According to Strauss, Great Falls Elementary School is on its last drain field, and only has 13 years left before it fails. However, Fairfax County Department of Health employee John Milgrim said that he never gave Strauss an exact calculation of the remaining lifespan of the school's drain field.

"We have no idea how long it will last," said Milgrim.

Regardless, Strauss said she still feels that time is of the essence in terms of the community making a decision on the matter.

"We certainly would never want to abandon a structure, so it's in your best interest to make a decision," said Strauss at the meeting.

She also said that she has concerns about the prohibitive cost of installing an on-site wastewater management system.

"We would probably be hard pressed to develop our own closed system, but we're certainly willing to look at any option you present to us," said Strauss. "However, there is a reasonableness factor with how much we are willing to put into it because any money that is put into it would have to come out of the money for the building."

Strauss said the School Board estimates spending approximately $13-17 million on the renovations.

WHAT HAPPENS next remains to be seen. However, Strauss is not the only one who wants to see a solution come to fruition as quickly as possible.

"I think we need something that can handle 80-90,000 gallons a day," said Mike Kearney, owner of the Old Brogue restaurant in the Village Center. "We're not looking to Band-aid the situation — I think we need to think about how to handle not only what we're currently using, but how do we get where we need to be?"

Foley is also anxious to resolve the situation, as he believes that the vitality of the Great Falls business community is at stake.

"This is gonna look like a Wal-Mart town if the businesses continue to fail," said Foley.

George Adeler, owner of Adeler Jewelry in the Village Center, said that he can understand that people are scared of a sewer line bringing in development, but at the same time, he feels that something must be done as soon as possible.

"The irony is nobody wants growth, but we all want a better level of service," said Adeler.

DuBois said that she will support whatever option the community chooses.

"I'm here to do whatever you want me to do," said DuBois at the meeting. "If you want a special treatment system, I'll help you get it, but you have to ask me in writing."