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Article 26

February 10. 2006 12:00AM

Planning session focuses on sewer, jobs
The Dispatch

Sewer issues and economic development topped the list of priorities Davidson County commissioners discussed Thursday during an all-day planning session.

Board members compressed what had been scheduled as a day-and-a-half agenda into one day and left the annual meeting unsure how to squeeze all the needs they heard about into an already tight budget. The talks were held in the boardroom of the Davidson County Economic Development Commission on the campus of the community college.

Most of the topics were updates of ongoing concerns. However, Public Works and Services Director Bill Clutter got board members' attention with the news that Winston-Salem/Forsyth Utilities might be willing to assume responsibility for part of the county's sewer collection system, from which it now accepts wastewater for treatment.

"I've heard your statements that you don't want to be in the sewer business," Clutter told them. "This is an opportunity to get out of it."

Clutter said the idea came up in a meeting with David Saunders, director of the combined city/county utilities operation, to discuss increasing the capacity allocated for two lines that serve the Miller Creek and Fryes Creek basins in northern Davidson County. During their talk, Clutter learned that "all options are open," including the county divesting itself of all responsibility for maintaining the pipes.

Under an existing agreement, Winston-Salem will accept as much as 1.5 million gallons per day of wastewater for treatment. Davidson County, which does not own a treatment plant, has similar agreements with Lexington and Thomasville.

"There's a fear that comes with that - the 'A' word," noted Vice Chairman Larry Potts, presiding over the meeting in the absence of Chairman Fred McClure, who was ill.

Clutter noted that, by itself, continued county ownership of the sewer lines will not necessarily forestall Winston-Salem expansion, because much development can proceed using septic tanks.

"The 'D' word gets you to the 'A' word," noted County Manager Robert Hyatt.

Potts said the power over sewer hook-ups could give the Twin City control over the density of development in the area, but Clutter said Davidson County would not be giving up its right to control land use and could tighten zoning regulations.

"If the 'A' word comes along, we don't have that right," Commissioner Cindy Akins added.

Thus, the discussion proceeded without anyone actually saying the word "annexation."

Clutter warned that if the county continues to be responsible for the lines, it will have to add customers and raise fees to generate enough revenue to maintain them.

Owning sewer lines has made most commissioners uneasy. The county began building them primarily to serve schools, which have been fined by state environmental regulators for exceeding the capacity of their septic systems, and in hopes of also serving commercial corridors for economic development.

"To me, this news he's brought back is some of the best news we've gotten in this county," remarked Commissioner Sam Watford. "We're not in the sewer treatment business. Let's get a working relationship with them and get this going."

The board agreed to send Potts, Watford, Hyatt and Clutter to meet with officials of Winston-Salem/Forsyth Utilities. With that decision, they put on hold a utility rate study that Hyatt had planned to discuss at the planning session.

Divestiture of the collection lines that feed into Winston-Salem would partially solve another problem that has confounded the commissioners for the past few years: how to fairly grant sewer connection requests to developers of large residential subdivisions. Some individual requests have been for a quarter or half of the limited capacity available.

The board also reviewed an engineer's alternatives for building sewer lines to Central Davidson middle and high schools on Highway 47 and to Southwood Elementary School and a proposed Southmont school on Highway 8. A basic plan to serve the schools and the immediate vicinity around them would cost about $6.3 million, while other alternatives, ranging as high as $12 million, could provide service to the intersection of Interstate 85 and Highway 64 East as well.

A vote to begin design work on the less ambitious plan to serve the schools is expected on the board's Tuesday night agenda. Having the engineering study in hand for the Interstate 85 intersection will be helpful if a commercial customer comes along who would help pay for the project, Watford said.

After lunch, Steve Googe, executive director of the EDC, reviewed business recruitment efforts and made a pitch for the commissioners to back creation of a 1,000-acre, multi-jurisdictional industrial park. That means the county would partner with several municipalities and possibly Duke Power and Norfolk-Southern Railway in the project.

"The idea of the park is instead of everybody having their own park, to have one park that everybody shares," Googe explained.

Davidson County needs the park because of recent successes, he said, noting that top industries are seeking sites here, but he lacks suitable "mega" sites to show them.

Prospects prefer locations in Class A business parks, but in the Lexington and Welcome parks there are only 156.5 acres available, most of which cannot be combined.

Googe said that 5.68 million square feet of vacated industrial space in 35 buildings has been sold since 2003, leaving only about 470,000 square feet in nine buildings available to show prospects.

Between 2000 and 2005, according to figures kept by the N.C. Employment Security Commission, Davidson County had 6,933 announced permanent layoffs. But during the same period, there were 8,795 new jobs announced, Googe said.

That performance has landed the county on a Top Ten list published in Site Selection magazine, but Googe said interest from larger companies will dry up if he cannot offer suitable sites in a park.

"This is a huge commitment," he said of the potential $12 million investment.

But based on figures from the Lexington and Welcome parks, the new one could generate $1.5 billion in new investment and about $8.5 million in additional tax revenue.

"If you want to walk on water, you've got to step out of the boat," Googe told them, recalling a Sunday school lesson about acting on faith.

The commissioners took no action on the matter but will undoubtedly revisit the issue in coming weeks.

Eric Frazier can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 226, or eric.frazier@the-dispatch.com.


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