Plans for a business on U.S. 52 in the city limits of Mount Airy could be derailed because the site is not readily accessible to municipal water and sewer service.
And that bothers one Mount Airy official, who is questioning the city’s utility policy in response.
“For me, it comes back to a philosophical question,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said. “If you buy property in the city limits, is it reasonable to expect that you can have water and service to your property line?”
Based on discussion during a commissioners meeting Thursday afternoon, the answer might be no — depending on what part of the city is involved.
In the present case involving property owned by Gary Harold near Newsome Street, its location is not near any existing water or sewer lines. An unidentified company wants to locate there, “but they can’t get water and sewer,” Cawley said of the utility services needed for its operation.
“If they get it, it’s going to cost them — the estimate was $195,000,” Cawley said Friday when fielding follow-up questions after Thursday’s meeting.
“That actually is cost-prohibitive.”
Cawley said he did not know anything about the nature of the business and how many employees it might hire.
But he believes water and service involves a quality-of-life issue and it is inconceivable to him “that a business on U.S. 52 in 2016 should be thinking about putting in a well and a septic tank…in the city limits.” Those are the only service alternatives in such cases.
Under the city’s utility policy, a developer — not the local government — is required to pay all costs related to water and sewer line extensions to serve a property in question.
This is not a major hurdle in most cases, but the Harold property is a good distance away from existing lines.
The city government is not motivated to pay for such extensions, either to business or residential sites, due to the cost factor. This could mean forking out several hundred thousand dollars just to provide service to one house, which is not feasible, discussion at Thursday’s meeting revealed.
“Are we going to do the same thing with police and fire protection?” Cawley responded regarding two other services available to an in-city location. “If it’s easy to get to, we will go?”
Cawley has on many occasions questioned the fact that Mount Airy charges double rates to its utility customers outside the city limits, and on Thursday he repeated the answer he always receives: “There’s got to be some benefit to being in the city.”
Yet that contradicts the fact some property inside Mount Airy effectively is being denied water-sewer service, he said.
“It’s flawed — there’s no way to justify what we have got before us,” Cawley added. “My issue is, is the board of commissioners satisfied with the way it is?’
Situation not uncommon
Properties with such access problems to water and sewer lines are not unusual in Mount Airy, according to a presentation during Thursday’s meeting by City Engineer Mitch Williams.
He displayed a map dotted with sites in various locations which are not served by utilities.
“There are dozens of parcels out there that do not have water and/or sewer,” Williams said.
This includes not only locations along U.S. 52, but on Linville Road, on U.S. 601 in an area behind Cracker Barrel near the Lowe’s hardware store, along Franklin Road and elsewhere.
Williams indicated that the city utility policy was instituted at a time when developers were buying up large chunks of property for housing subdivisions, which might not have even been in the city limits at that time.
In some instances, lots were left vacant in remote areas of subdivisions for topography reasons. “They’re just landlocked,” the city engineer said.
With other cases, water and sewer accessible is hampered by easement or right of way issues, lack of road frontage or by natural barriers such as creeks.
Williams cited one case of a home on Montclair Drive, an upscale section of town, which has been denied service because a neighboring property owner refused to allow a right of way for lines to be extended there.
With recent annexations, the city government has sought to ensure that affected properties do have such access, he said.
Yet that does solve existing problems such as the site targeted for the business on U.S. 52, and other commissioners aren’t willing to change the policy just now.
“I’m getting the feeling that if we went across the board with it, we’ll be signing some blank checks,” Commissioner Jim Armbrister said.
Commissioner Dean Brown said it is more costly to run water and sewer lines than sending a police car somewhere, reacting to Cawley’s point about law enforcement and fire protection.
“Putting in these lines is very expensive.”
But the commissioners were in agreement Thursday afternoon with a suggestion by Mayor David Rowe to do more research on the matter, including checking with other cities to see how they handle these situations.
Along with awaiting the results of that, the board also might invite the property owner involved in the situation at hand to attend a board meeting and illuminate his position.
“I understand how we’ve gotten to this point,” Cawley said Friday.
However, he thinks that if certain parcels can’t be readily connected, these should be declared non-purchasable, a “dead property” that is not subject to taxes or at least taxed at a lower rate.
“If somebody can’t get water and sewer,” Cawley said of a quality that affects property values, “I hope that’s reflected in the tax rate.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.