Mount Airy and Surry County officials met Tuesday morning to hammer out lingering details on a joint agreement to extend city sewer lines along the N.C. 89 corridor to the Interstate 77/74 area.
The long-awaited project with a price tag of around $5 million will aid a cluster of businesses and promote development in the Interstates District, while also serving locations in between — including Gentry Middle School, North Surry High and residences.
It has been plagued by various delays, and while Tuesday’s meeting seemingly paves the way for the city-county agreement to be finalized, an air of uncertainty persisted among elected officials and concerned citizens in attendance.
That includes when construction will actually begin on a project that has been in the works since 1999.
Rhonda Collins, owner of Beary Country Inc. in the affected area, posed that question at the end of Tuesday’s meeting. She said the timetable is important, to both existing businesses wanting to expand and for possible new entities wishing to locate near the interstates. She said one property owner was meeting with a prospect Tuesday, which could lead to a major development there.
“What can we say as a reasonable time to tell people?” Collins asked the assembled officials, who included county commissioners Eddie Harris and Jimmy Miller; County Manager Chris Knopf; City Manager Barbara Jones; Mount Airy commissioners Jon Cawley and Shirley Brinkley, who are members of the city Water and Sewer Committee, to which Brinkley was just appointed last week; County Attorney Ed Woltz; City Attorney Hugh Campbell; members of the municipal engineering staff; and others.
The best estimate was that the sewer lines could be in the ground and ready to go by January 2016. A 45-day timetable to send the project out to bids was mentioned, during which the full city and county governing boards are expected to take final action on the agreement ironed out Tuesday.
Knopf, the county manager, said a one-year time frame will be set aside for the construction, which could be less depending on factors including weather.
It will involve extending outfall lines from Mount Airy’s present sewer mains at Toast to the interstates, using a combination gravity and forced-main system that will enable tap-ons to properties along the way.
One holdup of late has involved securing easements from property owners in the project area, including locations where pump stations will be needed.
The county manager said a breakthrough in that regard has involved securing grant funds to correct serious erosion along streambanks adjoining properties sought for easements, which the owners wanted. “I think in their own mind it was tied to the easements,” Knopf said.
Since that was settled, the easement process has picked up in the past six weeks, he said. “We’ve made a lot of progress.”
“We’re pretty close,” Woltz said of securing access to all the property boundaries needed.
Another question mark addressed during Tuesday’s discussion of the agreement concerned how much the project ultimately will cost.
That figure has changed over the years as delays have occurred, with $4.9 million cited Tuesday. But Knopf said that estimate is about eight months old.
“We simply don’t know what the budget is,” Harris, the county commissioners’ chairman, said of the project. “We’re scared to death it may come in over budget.”
The funding sources include the Golden LEAF Foundation, which will supply $200,000; the N.C. Department of Commerce, $960,000; the Appalachian Regional Commission, $300,000; property owners in the Interstates District, $75,000; Mount Airy, $1 million; and Surry County, which will cover the balance of the cost.
“I think it’s important for everybody to know what the budget is,” said Campbell, the city attorney. He also injected language into the agreement to refund money in proportion to what each source has committed should the project come in under budget.
Knopf said other work in recent months has involved extending grants that have been on the table for years.
“We need to be as quick with this as we possibly can before these grants run down,” Brinkley said of getting the work started.
Early Tap Incentive
The fee procedure for users signing up for the sewer service also was aired Tuesday.
During an initial marketing period coinciding with the construction, users within the district will able to take advantage of a discounted sign-up fee of $500.
The fees collected will help offset the planning, engineering, legal and construction costs associated with the project.
After the initial marketing period, Mount Airy will receive its customary tap fee, which is several hundred dollars more.
The ownership of the sewer system eventually will be conveyed to the municipality.
There also was discussion Thursday about Mount Airy taking over a water system already extended to the Interstates District. Jones, the city manager, said more information, such as the number of customers involved, needed to be obtained before that issue is finalized.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.