Ocean View water may come with an unanticipated cost

Ocean View officials are concerned the town’s property owners might get even more sticker shock than they heretofore expected when they hook up to the town’s central water service in 2008. That extra cost could come in the form of fees charged to abandon their existing wells or to convert them to “agricultural use” for irrigation and other such purposes.

Town Manager Conway Gregory had been given varying figures for the cost of well abandonment or conversion, ranging from $250 to $750, but the goal of town officials and project managers at their water progress meeting on Oct. 4 was to determine exactly what costs will be for property owners and where those costs will be coming from.

The bottom line: contrary to rumor, property owners do not have to pay a fee for the application required by the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) to reclassify their wells for agricultural use or to certify their wells’ permanent abandonment. They will, however, have to pay varying fees for a licensed well driller to either verify the conversion to agricultural use or to actually fill in and permanently abandon their well.

The surprise element of the process came because the specific cost of both well-related procedures had not previously been mentioned to town officials, not even when they passed an ordinance requiring all town properties to be connected to the new central water system and for property owners to either abandon or convert their existing wells.

“Hardly a thing has gone right on this since Day 1,” Town Council Member Bill Wichmann said Oct. 4 of the $4.689 million (to-date) water system project, which has been plagued by delays over required paperwork and cost increases. “And here we have one more wrinkle at the end.”

While costs between $250 and $750 were of serious concern to town officials at the meeting last week, DNREC officials and Town Engineer Chuck Hauser said they felt even those numbers were inflated over the real costs most property owners can expect for the process of abandoning or converting their wells.

Again, there is no fee associated with the DNREC paperwork required to reclassify the well. The cost comes from the state-licensed well driller who has to sign off on that paperwork, either independently or through a project cost a property owner might get from a master plumber who contracts the well conversion and abandonment project through such a well driller.

Those costs will vary from property to property, plumber to plumber and well driller to well driller.

Hauser said the $250 mark even seemed high for the cost of reclassification alone, since that primarily involves a brief inspection and signing of a DNREC application – about a half-hour of a well-driller’s time, plus transportation time.

Chris Beckman of engineering firm Davis, Bowen and Friedel said that his conversations with property owners seemed to indicate that most in the town plan to convert their wells to agricultural use so they can water their lawns and gardens. He said many also plan at least one exterior faucet connecting to the new central water system, for car washing and other uses for which the area’s hard, iron-filled well water is not considered a suitable, if cheaper, substitute.

With the conversion of the wells and connection to the central water system, most property owners could be looking at between $1,500 and $2,500 in costs.

The cost of abandonment of a well was cited last week as a harder mark to identify, though, because that process involves the filling in of the existing well cavity with certain types of material, essentially returning the well area to a state like that prior to its drilling, complete with the ability to build above the area.

Depending on the depth of the well, that cost alone could hit the $750 mark, or possibly higher. Property owners could be looking at $3,000 or more to abandon their wells and connect to central water.

“It costs less to keep the well and not use it than to cap it,” Mayor Gary Meredith pointed out.

Town to apply for some grants

For low-income residents, assistance with the well-related costs could come in the form of a Community Development Block Grant, through Sussex County, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Gregory said he planned to apply for such a grant, but he also recognized that they won’t help a vast majority of the town’s residents, many of whom may also not have anticipated the additional expense related to their wells.

“We have residents who are going to be very angry about this, whether they’re financially pressured or have a million dollars,” Gregory said Oct. 4.

“The town can’t afford to finance this,” he added, noting the inability to use existing monies for the water project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while town officials pondered how to ease the costs for its citizens.

“We’ve got to do something,” Wichmann said.

Hauser and DNREC officials said they would not recommend the town consider bidding out the conversion and abandonment of wells on a town-wide basis in an attempt to lower the costs on a per-property level.

“It’s feasible, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” Hauser said. “On another project I was involved with, we bid out all the work to one master plumber for the connections. Half the people paid more than they should have, and half of the people paid less than they should have — so half the people were unhappy.”

Hauser said the variations in well depth made the group contracting of well abandonment “not really feasible,” because of the cost variations that would naturally occur. On the other hand, he said the reclassification for agricultural use could be feasible on a group contract basis — but he still didn’t recommend it.

“It’s best to go with the home owner’s decision,” Gregory said, with conversation among those at the meeting noting that some home owners might know a licensed well driller who would do the job more cheaply for them or a plumber who could contract the work more cheaply than the town might be able to. Hauser said groups of neighbors might also look at having their well conversions done all at once, to save the group the cost of bringing out a well driller to one neighborhood over and over again.

Gregory said the town would plan a mass mailing to all property owners to remind them of the town’s requirement to connect to central water and convert or abandon their wells by the end of 2008. Along with that reminder is likely to come a list of plumbers and/or well drillers with licenses to operate within the town.

Also likely to be mentioned therein is that simply “capping” a well and not using it is not an option. DNREC officials said they were willing to help the town with enforcement on that issue, if needed, since only the permanent abandonment of unused wells will help ensure that the town’s water sources are not open to contamination.

Property owners will therefore need to decide whether to take the cheaper, less-permanent option of having their wells converted to agricultural use (complete with disconnection from any dwelling’s interior water system) or to spend more and clear their existing well areas for future building.

Those with “open” geothermal heating systems using their existing wells will be able to remain connected to those wells for that system alone, according to DNREC. The town will also need to decide whether it will allow future geothermal systems of that open type to be built in the town, with DNREC able to approve exceptions to the abandon/conversion dichotomy if the town does allow them.

Timetable for connections nearly established

Hauser said Oct. 4 that he expects about 50 percent of the town’s property owners to connect to the water system when it first comes online, with others trickling in over the course of the year, and a last-minute rush by hold-outs to beat the deadline.

That deadline will likely be set as Dec. 31, 2008, with current expectations for the water system to go online as of Jan. 1 for all properties in the town, according to Gregory.

That subject was also discussed at length on Oct. 4, with Hauser saying that approval of the town’s modified certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) could possibly come at a meeting of the Delaware Public Service Commission (PSC) scheduled for Nov. 6.

The CPCN change is needed because part of the area to be served by the town’s new water system was previously allotted to Tidewater Utilities, which has agreed to sell that CPCN area to the town so that it can serve all of the newly connected properties. (Residents of Savannah’s Landing are in the Bethany Beach CPCN and will continue to be served by that town’s water system.)

With work proceeding now to connect the water system in a few small residential areas of the town and across major thoroughfares such as Route 26, Beckman and representatives of contractor A.P. Croll said they expected to be able to start installing water meters nearly as soon as they are given the go-ahead on the CPCN issue.

“We’re close,” Beckman said.

Installation of the meters is the final barrier to the system being turned on and ready for individual connections, and getting that process moving should take just a few days, he said.

Though the PSC hearing is not scheduled until Nov. 6, Hauser said he would be working with Gregory over the coming weeks to set a final fee schedule for the water service. A series of two readings of related ordinances would be set for November and December council meetings, keeping the project online for operation as of January.

Once the go-ahead on the CPCN is given, contractors will move to “blow out” the water system to clear it of any contamination and debris before the USDA performs required quality testing and then individual meters are installed.

The entire installation process should take just a few weeks, they said, again keeping the project on its currently anticipated timeline to begin connections after the first day of 2007.

Contractors noted that the blowing-off and meter installation could have begun months ago in some locations, were it not for the tie-up with the CPCN. There, Wichmann again vented frustration over how the project has been run.

“How can we just lose a month over paperwork?” he asked, adding, “Government needs to talk to each other. Somebody must have the authority somewhere to just say, ‘Go.’”

Gregory agreed the delay had been unnecessary, saying, “We wasted a lot of time having the attorney review the agreement,” and estimating that time lost to be about three months.

“I’m not blaming A.P. Croll in any respect,” Wichmann emphasized. “It was us and the state agencies.”

The councilman noted that early in the project he had recommended the town employ a utilities attorney to review the agreements with Tidewater Utilities — the very agreements that caused the estimated three-month delay and leave the town waiting for a November hearing to begin installation of water meters.

Wichmann said Tidewater’s own utility attorney had recommended they hire one of his peers to represent the town, so that utility-related language could be shorthanded, but the council had rejected the idea.

Lacking that and with the PSC hearing looming, the town is finally nearing the end of years of wrangling over who would provide water service for most of its residents and nearly a year of construction that has — and will have — a major impact on thousands of area properties and residents.

For those who have been awaiting the ability to happily drink from the tap and wash laundry without fear, the wait is nearly over and a new life with central water should arrive on or shortly after the new year.