Jefferson County should decide sewer issue

November 30, 2003|by Lyn Widmyer

For more than 20 years, I have heard the Jefferson County Commission use the excuse that "our hands are tied by state law" to avoid addressing controversial issues. I was at a public meeting once when a frustrated citizen suggested the county seal should show two hands bound together with the motto "state law won't let us do anything."

The Commission's interest and involvement in a proposal for a new sewage treatment plant on the Shenandoah River is a welcome departure from this policy.

The Flowing Springs/Cattail Run Wastewater Facilities Plan is being championed by the Jefferson County Public Service District (PSD). The numbers associated with the plant are staggering - from cost ($25 million) to treatment capacity (3 million gallons per day) to size of the service area (thousands of acres). The treated wastewater from the equivalent of more than 10,000 homes could be discharged into the Shenandoah River.


The extension of sewer service is the most powerful tool municipalities have to determine where, when and how growth will occur. As a colleague once commented, "developers are like rats, they follow the sewer." As Martha Stewart would say, this is a good thing. By linking the extension of sewer service to planning goals and objectives, public officials can help ensure development occurs at the right place at the right time.

Unfortunately, the officials responsible for planning in Jefferson County (the elected county commission and the appointed planning commission) have little authority over the creation and management of sewer service areas.

The Jefferson County Public Service District applies directly to the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council for approval to build treatment plants. The state does not require approval of the county commission or the planning commission.

As a result, the Flowing Springs/Cattail Run Facilities Plan was developed by PSD without meaningful input from the county commission or the planning commission. Even the City of Charles Town, which is seeking to expand its treatment plant to serve the same areas of the county, was left out of the process.

The PSD released the Facilities Plan on Oct. 6 and asked support of the county commission a week later. Past county commissions would have simply rubberstamped their approval, saying it is the state's responsibility to decide whether or not the project goes forward.

Fortunately, the current county commission has declined to endorse the project until they have more information. They have listened to comments from the Jefferson County Planning Commission and representatives of the City of Charles Town. The commission has decided to wait until the state completes a technical review of the Facilities Plan before meeting with the PSD to further discuss the proposal. This will probably happen sometime in January 2004.

At that meeting, the Commission could take a step backwards and decide not to spend time reviewing the facilities plan because the state, not the commission, has the final say.

I hope this will not be the case. The area proposed for sewer by the PSD is located in a future growth area defined in the comprehensive plan. The issue the county commission needs to address is whether this particular proposal is the best way to provide the needed public facilities. As Commissioner Greg Corliss has stated, "the question is will the citizens of Jefferson County be better served as a consequence of the Flowing Spring/Cattail Run plant."

The answer to this question should come from our elected officials, not the Public Service District and not the West Virginia Infrastructure and Development Council.

Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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