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3/11/2006
Taxpayers cannot afford to sewer all of southern NCC

Councilman Bob Weiner, an advocate of the state's Smart Growth initiative, wants to create incentive zones, where developers could build up to 20 homes per acre instead of the 1.3 units per acre allowed under current code.

Such a change, he said, would concentrate growth, protect open space and lower the cost of building the new infrastructure: The more homes built, the lower per-house cost to build the new sewer system.

Councilman Bob Weiner voted for the impact fee in 1997. He blames former County Chief Administrative Officer Sherry Freebery for removing the adjuster, saying she did so as a political favor to constituents worried about rising home prices in the region. Freebery could not be reached for comment Friday.

"They ignored the professionals in their own Land Use Department," Weiner said.

Council members could have restored the escalator before approving the fee. Weiner said the council was "kept in the dark" under the previous administration, and didn't know any better.




Not following up on sewers costs NCCo millions

Council planned to raise impact fee annually for new home buyers below canal, but didn't

NEW CASTLE COUNTY SEWER Q&A

What areas of southern New Castle County would receive sewer service?

In the next five to seven years, land that connects directly to the central core pipe system and properties that can be permanently serviced by Water Farm 1 near Odessa will receive it. The area generally is located south of the canal, east of the Norfolk Southern rail line and west of U.S. 13.

When will sewer service be available?

As soon as County Council endorses the plan, staff members will begin the construction bid process. Regional service should be available 18 to 24 months from then.

How will the county determine who gets service when?

For the short term, those with parcels in the two zones with active building plans under consideration will be given priority. The developments will share an equal proportion of the available capacity, expected to be 25 percent to 33 percent of their planned homes.

What happens if I want to build in southern New Castle County but have not started the land-use process yet?

You will not receive capacity under the short-term system, but will be phased in as the long-term plan is undertaken. Those planning to build outside the central core/Water Farm 1 areas also will be considered in the long-term plan.

Will existing county sewer customers be paying for this new service?

No. There will be no new sewer fees or rate increases for existing customers to pay for the short- or long-term plans.

I built my house five years ago and already am hooked up to Water Farm 1. What does this mean for me?

Neither your service nor your costs will change. You paid an impact fee when you bought your house and there will not be a surcharge for future construction on your bill.

I have a septic system in the central core zone. Do I have to hook up to the new sewer system? If I want to do so, how much would it cost me?

You do not have to hook up now. Most homeowners consider hooking to a sewer line when the septic system approaches the end of its useful life -- 20 to 30 years after construction. The cost to hook up to a nearby sewer line often can be significantly less than a septic replacement. Individual homeowners who do connect would pay the capital recovery fees.

New Castle County has a septic elimination program for neighborhoods. If 70 percent of the residents in a development wish to participate, the county will undertake a septic elimination project and pay 70 percent of the project cost. Homeowners are required to pay 30 percent. The actual amount paid varies based on what is needed to connect to the county sewer system.

The county will pay to lay the main pipes but what about the pipes through the new subdivisions? Who pays for those?

Pipes in the subdivisions are always part of the construction by the developer. They must build the infrastructure of sewer, water and roads.



By ALISON KEPNER
The News Journal
03/11/2006

New Castle County could have collected millions more from new home buyers to pay for a southern sewer expansion if leaders years ago had agreed to adjust an $8,164 impact fee adopted in 1997 for inflation.

Now those moving into the area could face sewer connection fees of $15,500 to $23,300, higher partly because they will have to pay to cover a lower fee paid by buyers of homes built since 1997.
"Hundreds of houses have been built south of the canal with a fee that has been kept artificially low," County Executive Chris Coons said Friday.

Coons outlined his proposal for how to expand sewers below the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal this week. His plan follows an October recommendation by county consultants Malcolm Pirnie to scrap former County Executive Tom Gordon's $100 million sewer expansion plan.

Pirnie said that plan really would cost more than $200 million without meeting the growing area's long-term disposal needs or providing adequate funding for daily operations.

The Coons plan calls for a staged approach. The first phase is the construction of a $30 million to $35 million central core network of mains feeding into the county's treatment facility near Odessa and to Middletown's separate plant. The county will buy and lease capacity from Middletown. It would take two years to complete.

This interim solution would provide service to four schools and about 2,000 of the 8,000 residential and business customers whose developments have been approved or are under review. It also would give officials time to design a long-term plan to serve the 26,000 homes expected when the area builds out.

To pay for the complete system, Coons suggested replacing the current impact fee with a capital recovery fee ranging from $15,500 to $23,000, depending on whether the county decides to increase it yearly based on inflation.

Those that hook up to the interim system would pay an additional $1,300, and all new customers would pay an operating surcharge for the next 25 years. That could raise the average annual sewer bill from $240 to as much as $700, depending on how leaders finance loans for the project.

New Castle County Council adopted the current sewer impact fee of $8,164 on December 31, 1997. Staff had calculated the amount with the intention that it would increase 6 percent annually. But County Council approved it without the adjustment.

Had the escalator been adopted, today's sewer impact fee would be about $13,800.

About 1,800 homes have received permits at $8,164. How many were approved each year, and how much they would have paid under the annually changing rates was not clear Friday. Based on the 2006 $13,800 rate, the net loss would be about $9.3 million.

Councilman Bob Weiner voted for the impact fee in 1997. He blames former County Chief Administrative Officer Sherry Freebery for removing the adjuster, saying she did so as a political favor to constituents worried about rising home prices in the region. Freebery could not be reached for comment Friday.

"They ignored the professionals in their own Land Use Department," Weiner said.

Council members could have restored the escalator before approving the fee. Weiner said the council was "kept in the dark" under the previous administration, and didn't know any better.

The council also could have changed the fee in the years since then. Coons, who served as council president from 2000 until his 2004 executive election, said they should have.

"I have repeatedly suggested changing it. Several of us on council recognized the ludicrousy of this approach," he said.

Council's failure to do so means future home buyers will face higher costs.

"We've known that this was coming. We've known that the $8,164 was supposed to be escalated and it wasn't," said Beverley Baxter, executive director of the Committee of 100, a nonprofit business group that promotes Delaware's economic health.

"That should have happened. That's something the last administration, the last council should have done," she said. "It is a bigger hit than if we had escalated it as we should have."

Land-use attorney Larry Tarabicos, who has clients developing homes in the region, thinks the market can absorb the cost.

"A $450,000 home can absorb a $20,000 sewer capital recovery fee," he said.

But the fee will make already hard-to-find affordable housing more difficult, he said. "Building a $100,000 home, $120,000 home or rental units ... a $20,000 capital recovery fee means a lot. It prevents you from doing that kind of housing."

County leaders will need to provide ways for affordable housing through changes to county code, now under review as part of their comprehensive plan update, Baxter and Tarabicos said.

They could waive the fees for affordable housing and allow higher densities.

Weiner, an advocate of the state's Smart Growth initiative, agrees. He wants to create incentive zones, where developers could build up to 20 homes per acre instead of the 1.3 units per acre allowed under current code.

Such a change, he said, would concentrate growth, protect open space and lower the cost of building the new infrastructure: The more homes built, the lower per-house cost to build the new sewer system.


Contact Alison Kepner at 324-2965 or akepner@delawareonline.com.

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