Mount Airy officials held a lengthy debate on city water-sewer policy Thursday afternoon, but were unable to reach a solution on how to accommodate property scattered throughout the city where providing utility service is not feasible.
The issue specifically relates to a parcel on U.S. 52-South owned by local businessman Gary Harold which is targeted for a new unidentified business. But due to its particular location, neither water nor sewer lines are readily accessible to the site, which under municipal policy will require the developer to pay nearly $200,000 in order to obtain service.
Money was a central issue during Thursday’s debate. It was initiated by Commissioner Jon Cawley, who believes such places along major highways should have water-sewer availability — which even in those cases might not be cost-effective due to geographical and other factors.
Cawley seemed to imply that while the city policy requires private developers to pick up the tab for water and sewer line extensions to serve a property in question, it has deviated from that over the years.
“For goodness sake, we’ve run to Virginia,” he said of a past project to provide water service for business and residential customers in the Lambsburg area of Carroll County, “and that was done with public money.”
He also mentioned how Mount Airy spent millions of dollars to extend utility lines to the affluent Cross Creek area when it was annexed about eight years ago. Another case cited was local officials allocating nearly $80,000 in 2013 to serve a remote property on North Street so a local dentist and longtime city taxpayer, Dr. Dean Simmons, could develop it for business purposes.
Despite such outlays, Cawley said water and sewer availability sometimes is not viewed as a quality-of-life issue, but a profit situation and questioned if that is appropriate.
“When I look at water-sewer, I don’t come at it with how much is this one going to cost?” he said of decisions on specific projects to provide utility service. “When people want it, it should be accessible.”
Cawley said to him, the matter boils down to a philosophical question: do people who own property in the city limits deserve water and sewer service or not?
He added that when funding water and sewer projects, it should “not matter how much you pay in taxes or where you live or how many businesses you own” and that utility availability is a reasonable expectation.
Fellow officials respond
Other council members reacted to Cawley’s stance by pointing to financial, policy and other implications involved.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell said a key to deciding whether to fund a water and sewer project is making a determination about how citizens at large stand to benefit, saying a litmus test for that is whether it will serve a broad public purpose.
“A public purpose is a shared benefit,” Campbell said, not one that helps a single property owner. “That’s got to be the focus.”
That purpose can include such factors as economic development and the providing of jobs, with Thursday’s discussion highlighting the fact that no such information has emerged regarding the Harold property.
The city attorney also responded to the Cross Creek utility extension, saying it was legally required since Mount Airy forcibly annexed that area and had to provide water and sewer accessibility within two years afterward.
Campbell also said a public purpose was involved with the Dr. Simmons project, since it involved a water main loop to alleviate future quality problems for other users in the area and stimulate development. The section in question also had been served by the municipal system in the past.
Mayor David Rowe further reminded Cawley about the policy requiring developers to pay extension costs, and cautioned against doing otherwise. “I don’t see that as being responsible to the taxpayers,” and spending $194,000 to accommodate the Harold property would not seem fair to them, Rowe commented.
Providing all landlocked parts of the city with utility access would cost millions of dollars, the mayor said.
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley seemed bothered by a lack of information about the Harold property, which she said might not have been granted an entrance point by the N.C. Department of Transportation, another key factor besides utilities.
“So should we be even discussing this before there is a business plan or if he’s going to get an entrance there?” Brinkley said.
Commissioner Dean Brown also questioned the urgency of action regarding the site owned by Harold.
“This is not an emergency,” Brown said. “We should discuss this kind of thing at our annual retreats or budget (meetings).”
Brown suggested that as more information comes forward, grant assistance might be found to serve that location if an economic-development purpose can be identified.
“There may be other ways,” he said, “other than instantly trying to do it.”
Board members subsequently agreed Thursday afternoon to discuss the matter of the Harold property at a planning session they earlier had scheduled for October.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.