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Sewer slowdown: Expansion in South Hall eases

POSTED: April 5, 2009 12:30 a.m.
Sara Guevara/The Times

Pump station near Cinnamon Cove Condos on Gaines Ferry Rd.

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Once-booming South Hall now must apply the brakes, at least in terms of sewer growth, thanks to the tanking economy.

And with the recession has come high sewage rates and strained relationships with South Hall residents and municipalities.

"We had no idea the economy would fail like it did," said Hall County Public Works Director Ken Rearden. "This was a very forward-thinking project."

As South Hall developed, county officials saw an opportunity to offer sewer services in the area and bought the Spout Springs sewer plant in 2007.

The plant was formerly a private facility that serviced three growing subdivisions - Sterling on the Lake, Reunion and The Village at Deaton Creek.

"When they all get built out, this (Spout Springs) plant is over capacity," Rearden said. "We knew this plant was not going to be able to service all of South Hall County."

In order to accommodate the growth, the county also bought sewer capacity at Mulberry Creek from Gainesville.

But with the housing industry at a standstill, the developments have yet to fill up, forcing the county to temporarily abandon its Mulberry Creek sewer plans.

"I don't think we've had a new meter sell in that system in three months," Rearden said.

The slow growth hurt not only the county but its residents.

Phyllis Mercer, a resident of the Village at Deaton Creek, said she and other residents do not want to shoulder the county's debt with their own sewer bills.

"We're only 1,500 residents," Mercer said. "You can't just depend on new homes."

Currently, the homes serviced by the Spout Springs facility pay a flat rate of $42 per month. But in a plan considered by the county, they could pay by usage at a rate of $9.87 per hundred cubic feet.

That rate would be much higher than surrounding areas and increase costs considerably for bigger families, pushing bills toward the $100-a-month range, depending on use.

"The rates would have been much lower had our customer base grown as projected," Rearden said. "We've got $46 million worth of debt and $1.3 million in operating costs."

Rearden said he hopes the rate structure can change by the end of the calendar year.

"We want to try to get down to the $5 to $6 (per CCF) range," Rearden said. "I'm concerned about the high rates, the commission's concerned about the rates. We don't want to be known as the county with the highest rates in the state."

Mercer is also concerned that sewer throughout the county has developed haphazardly.

"We're really looking for some coordinated plan on their part," Mercer said.

The county had some challenges when working out sewer agreements with South Hall cities.

In December, Braselton accused Hall County of violating House Bill 489, which aims to prevent the duplication of services.

"A portion of the area you indicate the county wishes to serve is within the town's sphere of influence," Mayor Pat Graham said in a letter to Tom Oliver, chairman of the Hall County Board of Commissioners. "Please allow this letter to confirm that (Braselton) has not consented to such service," she said.

In a later agreement between the two governments, Braselton allowed Hall County to continue serving the Village at Deaton Creek and up to two buildings in the Riverplace medical complex.

"In return, Hall County agreed not to provide (sewer) to anything else in our service area," said Jennifer Dees, Braselton town manager.

Also in December, an agreement between Hall County and Flowery Branch involving the Spout Springs plant created a divide on Flowery Branch City Council.

The agreement called for Hall County to provide sewer service to parts of South Hall, including Sterling on the Lake, formerly in Flowery Branch's service area off Spout Springs Road.

The council's two Sterling residents, Chris Fetterman and Craig Lutz, voted against it. But the agreement earned passage as the council's three other members, Mary Jones, Pat Zalewski and Allen Bryans Sr., voted for it.

Lutz said he was worried about soaring sewer bills, and that he wanted the council "to sit down with the county and preferably Oakwood and Braselton and ... iron out all the sewer issues for South Hall County."

Flowery Branch and Oakwood, meanwhile, are shoring up their own sewer plans.

Flowery Branch has acquired the Cinnamon Cove condominium complex at 6500 Gaines Ferry Road as part of a bigger plan to eventually double capacity at its sewer plant on Atlanta Highway.

With the March 17 passage of a renewal of Hall County's special purpose local option sales tax, the city plans to spend $1.3 million toward two sewer lift stations, with one replacing an outdated plant at Cinnamon Cove, and a force main line.

City Manager Bill Andrew said he believes the city could acquire a permit to expand its plant later this year from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

"We don't intend to be using it anytime soon," he said. "... Obviously, with the economic changes we've had recently and the lack of demand for sewer capacity, we're sort of sitting back and regrouping on our time frames for the plant expansion."

The permit is good for five years, giving the city sufficient time to get the project up and running, Andrew said.

Hall County informed Gainesville officials last week that they were backing out of an agreement in which the city would operate the city's sewer services.

Rearden said the county can run the sewer plant using a private contractor for nearly $800,000 less than the city.

"I know right now they don't want to have Gainesville operating just because of economic reasons," Rearden said.

Gainesville Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall said the difference in price accounts for the added services Gainesville would have been able to provide.

"Instead of a contractor they really get a whole utility," Randall. "We got the crew, we got the equipment ... we won't be looking for a contractor to come help."
The city also handles customer service and billing, which the county had to sacrifice to save money.

Randall said though he is disappointed the county backed out of the sewer agreement, he will be open to working with them in the future.

"Ken Rearden is a good man ... I think he's going to do his best but he is one person. You're talking about a utility department," Randall said. "I wish them the best of luck."

Oakwood is in a unique position: It operates a sewer system without a plant.

Basically, the city receives capacity from Gainesville and Flowery Branch that particularly has fueled commercial growth in such areas as Mundy Mill Road and Winder Highway.

Oakwood is moving ahead in securing up to an additional 2.5 million gallons in sewer capacity from Braselton, with plans to build a pump station and lines from Martin Road to Braselton in Jackson County.

Construction could begin later this year, with the project to finish up in late summer or early fall 2010.

Following the passage of SPLOST VI, the county is looking north for its next sewer project.

Part of the more than $53 million allotted for sewer projects will go toward establishing sewer services along the Ga. 365 corridor in North Hall.

The relatively untouched area is expected to develop heavily over the next decade, and the Hall County Commission hopes to attract industry and jobs to the area.
But the first step is sewer.

"It's where the growth's going to happen, commercially especially," Rearden said. "The big thing about sewer in a region is it drives developments."

 



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