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Is there enough sewer capacity? Engineers called in to get answers in spat between schools, Flowery Branch
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Woodfield Apartments on Hog Mountain Road are nearing completion Friday, May 13, 2022, in Flowery Branch. - photo by Scott Rogers

An outside engineering firm hired by the city of Flowery Branch says the sewer pump station on Hall County Schools' property is more than capable of handling extra flow from new apartments nearby, corroborating earlier assessments by the city's engineers. 

The city's engineers are authorized by the Environmental Protection Division to assess the sewer's capacity themselves.  

“But we hired a third party just to make sure that it wasn't just one person saying everything was good," said City Manager Tonya Parrish. “We have capacity and just as that sewer shed grows, we will continue to monitor the needs of the sewer shed and will react accordingly." 

The outside firm was hired after a dispute between city officials and Hall County Schools. 

At the heart of the disagreement lies a proposed gravity flow system. School officials say they only granted an easement to the 342-unit apartment complex because the city had agreed to replace the pump station with a much preferred gravity flow system, eliminating concerns that the pump station might one day fail. The pump station sits on the campus of Flowery Branch High School, adjacent to the apartments.  

“We granted the easement to the apartments under the assurance that there will be a gravity line under (Interstate) 985," said school board member Mark Pettitt. "That was the only reason that easement was granted." 

The report from ESG Engineering found that the pump station "fully passes the peak flow expected with room for growth." 

The apartments, built by Woodfield Development, have connected to the pump station, and leasing is scheduled to begin in mid-May. 

Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield previously threatened legal action, saying the added sewage could cause the pump to overflow, creating a "Chernobyl in the backyard of our schools.” But he said Friday that they are pressing pause on litigation for now. 

The school district hired an engineering firm of its own to assess the capacity of the pump station. Rochester & Associates concluded in its report that the pump station can indeed handle the additional flow, but it "should only be a short term solution to supplying the sanitary sewer needs of this basin." The report says the city should add the school district's anticipated growth to its calculations and replace the pump station with a gravity flow system, finishing construction no later than January, 2024. 

"There is enough capacity for now," Schofield said, but the bigger issue is the miscommunication from the city in early meetings. He said city officials gave "hair-on-fire" warnings about the limited capacity of the sewer system, only to discover later the system is capable of handling the added sewage. 

Parrish, the city manager, has said the city never agreed to build a gravity flow system. 

The written agreement doesn't make any mention of it. 

Crag Herrington, chair of the school board, signed the easement agreement. He acknowledged that it doesn't explicitly require the city to build a gravity flow system. Rather, it was a "gentlemen's agreement," he said, adding that often the particulars of an easement are not specified in the agreement itself. 

Schofield said much the same. 

"In the 22 years that I've been a superintendent, I've never found it necessary with other governmental agencies to put the specifics of a straightforward easement in writing," he said. "If I tell you I'm going to do something, I'm gonna do it." 

"All the rules started to change at the 11th hour," he said, "and that's not the way we do business." 

The sewer system and the adjoining pump station were built and funded by Hall County Schools more than 20 years ago. The school system transferred ownership to the city shortly after construction, but because the pump station sits on school property, the school system must grant an easement to anyone who wants to connect. 

Schofield said they are still pushing for a gravity flow system. 

Bill Whidden, director of public works for the city, said building the gravity flow system is a long-term goal. But it would be quite expensive, he said, and the city would have to wait until the next budget cycle to allocate funds.