An ongoing and escalating dispute between Richland County and a group of Hopkins and Lower Richland residents over a planned sewage line highlights an apparent distrust between the people and their elected representatives.
Tensions between residents and politicians are heightening, with a citizens’ group this week filing a lawsuit alleging the county is withholding information about the $13 million sewage line from Hopkins to Eastover. Some 1,200 residents have signed a petition asking the county to halt the project, their attorneys say.
Now eight months after residents first raised concerns about the project to County Council, many of them feel their basic questions haven’t been fully answered: What is the cost to residents? Can the county force them to connect to the sewage line? Will the sewage line spur unwanted development in the rural area?
The county has responded to residents with some answers and assurances to try to assuage their concerns. But the citizens’ group and its attorneys appear convinced that county staffers and elected officials are giving them misinformation.
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Council members have temporarily delayed the project until some details, such as whether or not the county can and will cover residents’ connection costs, have been firmly worked out and information has been presented clearly to the residents.
But the county only has until October 2017 to have the sewage lines permitted and constructed. At this point, county officials say they’re on track to meet the deadline. But if they miss it, the city of Columbia assumes control of utilities in the area and could annex residents, which could force them to pay even more for utilities they don’t want.
Virginia Sanders, a Lower Richland resident and activist whose daughter lives in the proposed sewage line area and has a failing septic tank, said she recognizes that there are residents who have a legitimate need for sewer service and should be served. But she would prefer to see the county slow down, conduct a thorough septic tank study and consider providing sewage service only where it’s needed and wanted.
“There have been so many misrepresentations and ... one person saying one thing and another person saying another until the people no longer know who to trust and who to believe,” Sanders said.
Most of the council members have been on board with the project. Councilman Norman Jackson, who represents a portion of the Lower Richland area and first came up with the sewage line plan about 10 years ago as an alternative to two unwanted sewage treatment plants, says the sewage line is nothing but positive for the area.
In years of public meetings discussing the sewer plan, Jackson says he never heard anything but support from residents until last summer and fall, leading up to his re-election bid. He says the group has a personal and political agenda against him, which Jenkins Mann, an attorney for the citizens’ group, disputes.
Councilman Bill Malinowski, who represents the northwest corner of the county, has proved to be an unlikely ally for the Lower Richland residents, urging his council peers to slow the project down and consider residents’ concerns.
“I’m still not on board with providing sewer service to a group of people that say, ‘We don’t need it. We can’t afford it’,” he said earlier this month. “If the residents truly feel they don’t want or need it, then I feel we should somewhat respect these requests.”
Here are some of the ongoing concerns and responses from both sides of the sewer issue:
Are residents going to be forced to hook onto the sewage line?
No, the county says.
There are already enough customers to make the service self-supporting without convincing other residents to hook onto the line. The county is simply giving those other residents the option to connect to the service.
The only case in which an existing household would be required to hook onto the sewage line, the county says, is if the house has a failing septic system, as determined by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, and the house is within 200 feet of the sewage line.
DHEC only inspects septic systems to determine if they’re failing if the department receives a complaint.
A county ordinance that says all properties within 200 feet of a sewage line are required to connect has caused concern for some residents, who believe the county will eventually force them to become sewer customers. But that requirement only applies to homes and buildings built after a sewage line is in place, assistant county administrator Sparty Hammett said.
Mann, though, believes the law gives the county the authority to force those residents to connect to the line, despite present assurances.
What is the cost to residents?
Up front, nothing for residents within 200 feet of the line, if they decide to hook onto the sewage line before construction begins, the county says.
Mann is concerned that council members have not officially voted to approve the proposed connection and tap-in fee waivers, only to identify the funding for them.
Residents who do not initially decide to connect to the system and who connect later – including, for instance, owners of new properties and current property owners whose septic tanks fail down the road – would assume the full cost of connecting to the system.
The monthly user rate will be $37.60, a figure that Mann says he and residents believe will rise in the future.
County residents who receive sewer service from the city of Columbia – including more than 800 residential customers who would be transferred from city to county service after the Lower Richland line is constructed – pay more than twice as much monthly.
Will the sewage line lead to development in the area that could erode its rural character?
Many residents believe the purpose of the sewage line is to encourage development, which many of them don’t want in their rural community.
The master plan for Lower Richland calls for mostly rural residential and agricultural land use. And, Jackson says, the area’s proximity to McEntire Air National Guard base requires that it remain low density, so residents do not have to be concerned about unwanted development.
Still, signs point to progress in the area that is likely to be attractive to developers, who have until now lacked the infrastructure and utilities needed to develop there.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.