Planning Commission recommends denial of permit for sewage pump station

The Charlottesville Planning Commission recently recommended that the City Council flush plans to convey sewage from a proposed subdivision in Fry’s Spring through a private sewage pump station.

The application for a special-use permit is for development of at least 41 single-family homes on small lots between Monte Vista Avenue and Azalea Drive near Azalea Park. The proposed homes, which would be along a street named Azalea Forest Drive, are in a by-right subdivision, meaning that they are permitted under their land’s current zoning.

Before the 6-1 vote, several neighbors spoke against the project, citing a range of concerns.

Jess Wenger, one of five speakers who said they were speaking on behalf of about 85 Fry’s Spring residents, expressed concerns about lingering odors due to the topography. The subdivision would be about 35 feet below Monte Vista Avenue, she said, and about 25 feet below Azalea Avenue.

“The proposed siting of this pump station is in a stream valley [in] which, as we touched on earlier, odors will linger,” she said.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this development, and nobody is in support of a development like this. It’s simply not in concert with the surrounding neighborhood,” said Azalea Avenue resident Jason Bishop, who noted the size of the proposed houses and lots, as well as the pump station.

Susan Quinn, a member of the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association’s board, stated that the association opposes the special-use permit being granted for reasons that include the lack of best practices from the city for pump stations, as no others exist in the city, and the inability of the city’s utilities department to take control of the pump station.

Lauren Hildebrand, director of the city’s public utilities, said the city would hold the pump station up to state standards, if built, but would not assume responsibility for the facility because the public utilities department lacks someone who has the skill set to operate it. Although the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority has trained people, many of the pump stations in Albemarle County are private, she said.

After an expression of relief from some of the audience when it became clear that the Planning Commission would recommend denying the permit, Chairwoman Lisa Green said the plan to develop on one of the last open spaces in the city was not yet over.

“… Folks, you may have clapped, but you’re not going to like this: It’s gonna develop. I’m sorry.”

Due to the topography of the 6-acre property, it is not connected to the city’s gravity sewage system. The proposal to pump the sewage up through an easement on Monte Vista Avenue to an existing sewer line was in response to difficulties in attempting to get an easement from about 10 Monte Vista residents to construct a sewer main in their backyards to connect to an RWSA interceptor pipe along Moores Creek. The city typically does not use eminent domain to create sewage lines to connect to private developments, staff said. In a sample letter included in the application, the applicants offered $2,500 for sewer easements ranging from 10 to 20 feet.

Justin Shimp, of Shimp Engineering, said applicants CORE Azalea LLC and Azalea Cottages LLC only received one or two responses from those landowners.

After repeated comments about potentially raising the payment for the easement to entice the landowners who rejected or did not respond to the offer, Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg caused a brief uproar among the panel.

“Aren’t y’all mad at those 10 selfish property owners that … I get that $2,500 is a lowball and they can ask for more money, but they didn’t even respond,” Stolzenberg said. “And now they’re going to force this [pump station proposal] on all of them because they’re not even gonna respond to the letter with a counteroffer?”

Under the proposal, the pump would be placed on the rear of one of the homesites at the southern end of the development and would then send the sewage through a pipe across an easement on one property on Monte Vista Avenue to connect to the city’s sewage system. It is on one of the lots because the city does not allow lots that are not created for habitation outside of planned unit developments, city planner Matthew Alfele said at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting.

The pump station would have a 10-foot-deep underground well with a pump and a backup pump, and its depth would muffle most, if not all, of the noise during normal operations, Shimp said. On the surface, the facility would include a backup generator, be enclosed by a shed and be surrounded by a fence. The facility would be designed to handle 2½ times the average expected flow of sewage from 50 homes, about 50,000 gallons per day.

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The subdivision's entrance would use this stub road off Azalea Drive as its entrance.

Credit: Skyclad Aerial

In contacting Chesterfield, Greene and Nelson counties about pump stations, city staff said they could not find a facility of comparable size.

 “Everything was either really large [and] run by the local utility company — some of the private ones were more … commercial oriented,” Alfele said.

Odor was cited as the most common issue from neighbors of those pump stations.

“That can be a problem on older systems that are not equipped with the correct technology of the day,” Shimp said. “You can do an air pump and a diffuser to avoid that. Cycling frequently enough avoids that. You would not smell this pump station.”

The subdivision will have a homeowners association that, through dues, would be responsible for the maintenance of the pump station. The proposed HOA document states that the pump station would be inspected monthly by licensed and insured professional operators and that the pumps would be replaced every 10 years.

“Staff finds that a successful private sanitary pump station needs to be well funded and maintained on a regular basis,” the staff report states. “To ensure the pump station will not impact the surrounding environment, staff would like maintenance records provided on a yearly basis. Staff would also like documentation provided annually that the HOA is properly funding the operation and maintenance of the pump station.”

Commissioners expressed concerns about whether the HOA would endure long enough for the upkeep of the facility and what would become of the land without the pump station.

“If this SUP is not approved, how else would you develop this site?” Commissioner Taneia Dowell said.

“You’d have to either acquire easements to go to a sewer downstream, which is a possibility, or — this might require a different kind of permit — we could very well build a wastewater plant on the property and actually treat the wastewater there and discharge it,” Shimp said.

“It looks like we’re looking at a 20-year bet on an HOA,” Commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates said. “How common is it for an HOA to survive 20 years in this city?”

If the HOA were to fail, the residents could attempt to acquire an easement to convert the system to a gravity fed sewer. Hildebrand said public utilities would not be involved unless it became a public health issue. If there is not enough money for repairs to the sewage system, water would be shut off to the subdivision until a solution was found.

“We are not making these lots affordable by having this system put into place,” Green said.

The subdivision needs to tie directly into the city’s sewage system, she said, “and not pass these costs along to these property owners who, I guarantee you, are happy homeowners, they’re coming in, they want to go into Fry’s Springs, and I promise you they’re not reading all the content. … It is the nature of new homeowners. They have no idea what they’re signing on at all until it fails and somebody comes to [them]. … They don’t have $20,000 laying around, probably they don’t have $1,000 laying around.”

Only Solla-Yates voted against recommending that the City Council reject the special-use permit.

As a quorum of the City Council was assembled during the meeting, another public hearing will not be held when the special-use permit comes before the council for a final vote.