County could bring sewer to Tanglewood, Oak Acres

Residents of the Tanglewood and Oak Acres communities near Millville could soon get relief from failing septic systems there.

At their Jan. 25 meeting, Sussex County Council members unanimously approved a public meeting of property owners in those communities in order to give them information on a proposed expansion of the Miller Creek Sanitary Sewer District to include their homes.

John Ashman, the county’s director of utility planning, told council members on Tuesday that residents of the Tanglewood and Oak Acres communities had requested to be included in the sewer district when the nearby Bayard expansion was being considered.

Ashman said the county had sent out 83 “polling letters” to see how many of the impacted property owners wanted to be included in a possible sewer system expansion. Of those, 53 responded, with 51 in favor and two opposed.

Along with the yes/no responses, Ashman said, some property owners had questioned the possible rates for sewer service and connection. He said county staff had been unable to quote rates for them, as no specific boundary of the project had been set and it was still subject to change by the county council.

As of Jan. 12, though, the boundary for the proposed expansion has been established, leading Ashman to propose a public meeting to update the affected property owners.

“The public hearing on the boundary expansion was so long ago that we wanted a public meeting to discuss the impact of construction and rates on the home owners,” he said.

Ashman noted on Tuesday that The Estuary project had “failed to move forward at the pace they were hoping for,” but the Engineering Department was presenting the option for service in response to failing septic systems in that area.

He said a gravity collection system was being proposed for both communities, with some grinder pumps located in some areas of Oak Acres and a pump system possibly running up Camp Barnes Road to a second pump station.

Councilman George Cole was skeptical of the concept of expanding the county’s sewer service to that sparsely populated area.

“I had asked what would happen in the event The Estuary wouldn’t move forward,” he noted, suggesting that the costs of expanding service wouldn’t be practical for the number of properties being served.

Ashman told the council that there were leftover grant monies from the Miller Creek expansion that they originally had felt could be used to put in a dry gravity system but that staff now feel that it would be better to put in the full system.

“It appears from just looking at it, that it is going to be expensive,” responded Cole. “It doesn’t seem like a lot of people, and it seems like a lot of area. It is such a remote area … it runs back to the big wildlife area, and there’s no potential expansion for a long while to come. It seems it might be cheaper to fix the failing systems,” he said.

Ashman said he didn’t have a good count on how many septic systems in the proposed expansion area are failing, as those with a failing system will often refuse to disclose that they have one. But, he said, there was a large number of petitioners asking for expansion of the sewer system in Oak Acres.

Finance Director Susan Webb noted on Tuesday that the county does have leftover Miller Creek grant money that needs to be used “in a timely manner,” as it will expire. She pointed out that a number of the county’s larger projects had received benefit of stimulus funding last year that reduced their costs and that things are now “back to normal” – meaning that the county, and property owners, will again have to foot more of the bill for projects.

County Administrator David Baker said the project cost is estimated at $2 million, but with $1.5 million in grant money still available and a possible separate state grant, “There is some very attractive funding available for the project.”

Cole was also skeptical of the plan to use the remaining grant monies for the expansion.

“Sometimes, if you use it, you don’t use it effectively,” he said. “You don’t get the most bang for the buck.” Acknowledging that the grant funding is “use it or lose it,” he asked whether, if the county let it go back into the revolving fund, it would be helpful when the county gets to a larger project.

The remaining grant funding is dedicated to the Miller Creek project area, however, and could not be used elsewhere by the county. Baker said if the county doesn’t use the money, it would go back into a national pool of funding, which would be difficult for Sussex to then take advantage of.

Still, Cole said he was concerned about the use of the funds for such a sparsely populated, outlying area.

“This is the boonies, boys. There’s nothing out there,” he said. “The Estuary failed.”

Despite that impression, Ashman said, The Estuary project is moving forward, with construction drawings coming in to the county. “It is moving – just not at the rate we expected.” He again requested the county set a meeting with property owners at which they will get an idea of the cost to connect to the sewer system.

“When they find out the cost of this, and it’s spread over these few number of people, they’re going to flip,” Cole predicted.

Council members voted unanimously to authorize Ashman to set a public meeting for the affected property owners.