Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said the district may ask a judge to stop a developer from using a sewer system connected to a 342-unit apartment complex adjacent to Flowery Branch High School.
School officials say Woodfield Development has wrongfully connected to a sewer on the high school’s campus and that the added demand from the apartments could cause an environmental disaster.
“Not only does it put our boys and girls in a situation that could have all kinds of health issues,” Schofield said. “The environmental potential of overflowing one of those stations is real, and the last thing we want to do is be cleaning up our own Chernobyl in the backyard of our schools.”
Tonya Parrish, Flowery Branch city manager, dismissed such dire warnings, saying the sewer system is more than capable of handling additional sewage and that the city wouldn’t risk the well-being of the community.
“I can tell you that the city would never, ever do anything to harm anyone, especially schoolchildren, and that we have maintained that sewer system for more than 25 years, and there have not been issues,” she said. “A lot of development in the same sewer shed used to flow through this system (including an apartment complex) that is no longer served by this sewer shed. All that flow goes to Braselton now.”
“The system can handle it,” she said.
Patrick Kassin, a development partner with Woodfield Development, said they have the necessary permits to use the sewer system for the apartments, which are scheduled to begin leasing in mid-May.
“We’re just a customer of the city of Flowery Branch, of their sewage system, and we have been connected and re-permitted to make that connection, so that’s what we did,” Kassin said. “We’ve done everything we’ve been told to do.”
The school district built a sewer system more than 20 years ago, installing a pump station on the campus of Flowery Branch High and building a sewer main that connects to the city’s existing sewer system. Soon after, the school district transferred ownership of the system to the city, but because it still sits on school property, anyone who wishes to use it must be granted an easement from the school district.
In October 2020, the district took the unusual step of granting an easement to Woodfield Development, allowing it to use the sewer system for its new apartments — but only after Woodfield agreed to replace the sewer’s force main with a much-preferred gravity flow system, school officials say.
It was an apparent win for both: The school district could retire its intensive pump station at the high school, and the apartments would have a sewer system to dispose of their wastewater.
“You always want a gravity over a force main,” Schofield said, “and it took us about 1/100th of a second to say, ‘We’re in. Anything that gets rid of that force main and gives us a gravity system, that's a great idea. We'll give an easement.’”
A force main is a sewer line that uses a pump to transport wastewater uphill, whereas a gravity flow system uses downward sloping pipes, allowing gravity to do the work.
“What it would do for us is get the need for a pump off our property,” Schofield said, “and we basically then could quit worrying about whether or not these pumps ever went bad.”
But late last year, he said, Woodfield backed out of the agreement, requested a larger easement and connected to the sewer anyway. “To which the answer is not just no, but heck no,” he said.
“The entire situation is beyond my understanding,” Parrish said, adding that a requirement to build a gravity flow system was “not at all” a part of the agreement. The language of the easement agreement signed by the school board in October 2020 does not explicitly require the developer to build a gravity flow system.
“There was a plan to do something different and then there were a lot of complications for going under 985, but the developer had an easement from the school board, and they used that easement to connect,” she said. “The developer didn't do anything other than what they had permission to do.”
Kassin said Woodfield “fully intended” to build the gravity flow system, but “the city council voted and had us go in a different direction. It's actually cost us a lot more money and time.”
Schofield said he has hired engineers to fully assess the capacity of the sewer before taking legal action.
“Our next step will be a legal injunction in Hall County court to stop any additional flowage until there’s a solution to handle the volumes that we're talking about.”