DAVIDSON – A social media-fed wave of uncertainty and anxiety led to overflow attendance at a June 5 town board workshop that included an agenda item referencing the future of utility extensions.
The published agenda listed “Water/Sewer/Annexation Policy Resolution” as a planned work session topic. There were 48 hours of internet-distributed speculation and accusations prior to the meeting. Because of this, the conversation initially intended as a first-phase evaluation of a potential update and formalization of the town’s utility policy began with comments assuring audience members that no votes or final decisions on the policy were planned that night or in the immediate future.
The water/sewer policy was listed as the third item on the board’s work session agenda, but Mayor Rusty Knox opened the meeting with a statement designed to flush away concerns that a policy change was imminent. Saying he received a call the night before from N.C. Rep. John Bradford “asking me why we were refusing to provide water and sewer service to the ETJ (extraterritorial jurisdiction),” Knox acknowledged some people had jumped to the wrong conclusions about the intent of the work session. “The water-sewer policy is up for discussion, nothing more.”
Ninety minutes later, at the outset of the scheduled policy discussion, Town Attorney Cindy Reid also felt compelled to reiterate the board’s intentions. She described the proposed resolution that accompanied the posted online agenda as “an initial conversation piece” and a draft designed as a foundation for discussion, not a final policy statement.
Putting policy on paper
The issue involved is the town’s approach to water and sewer extensions, which are vital factors in shaping the course of new development. The range of property development options – either for residential or commercial usage – is determined to a great extent by the availability of water and sewer service. Without the utility connections, development must rely on septic tank and well operations which, by necessity, limit the size and scope of projects.
That fact was a consideration in the 1984 agreement between the town and Charlotte that assigned responsibility for all municipal water and sewer service operations in Davidson (including the town’s ETJ) to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Utility Department (now known as Charlotte Water). Based on the terms of that agreement, the utility company is not allowed to extend utility services into Davidson’s ETJ without the town’s approval.
Reid said the conditions of that agreement give the town the ability to use water and sewer extensions as a land management tool designed to “encourage or discourage” development.
“The town decides where water and sewer goes,” she said.
The original terms of the 1984 agreement state the town’s approval of utility extensions much come in written form signed “by the mayor ... or his/her designated representative.”
Since the agreement was adopted, the “designated representative” has been the town manager. Knox, Reid and Town Manager Jamie Justice said there has been a basic understanding that final decisions about water and sewer extensions reflect town board policy, but that stipulation is not a written and formally adopted part of municipal guidelines.
Reid said the draft resolution she prepared for board consideration is based on the 1984 agreement and the town’s current unwritten approach to utility service issues but specifically identifies the town board as the final authority on water and sewer extension decisions.
Support for the change
Commissioner David Sitton, who said the town “saw new rooftops planned in a short period because of water-sewer extensions” in recent years, endorsed the idea of more direct board involvement in utility service decisions and the annexations that routinely accompany utility extensions. Commissioner Matthew Fort said he considered it important to “establish written policy that defines how the process will work.”
And Knox said he saw a positive aspect to the “consistency” a town manager could bring to the utility extension issue, since the town’s governing body faces the prospect of change every two years through municipal elections.
But all board members agreed the issue warrants more evaluation and the opportunity for public input.
“These are complicated questions that need thought and input from the public,” Commissioner Jim Fuller said.
And one factor to consider, according to Reid, is that adoption of a formal policy would also make it vital to establish reasons for denying extensions.
An open town hall meeting and other events to inform the public about the potential policy and encourage feedback will be planned.
The statements and discussions at the June 5 meeting didn't ease all concerns about what the town's next steps may be. At the board's June 12 meeting, several speakers addressed the board and said they viewed the planned review of the utility extension policy as a threat to existing guidelines for rural development.
Several speakers, referencing the town's current Rural Area Plan, said criteria was already in place outlining the type of ETJ development that would be allowed and subsequently qualify for water and sewer service. The speakers, many of them property owners in the town's eastern ETJ, said a significant alteration in water and sewer extension policy could be detrimental to their ability to market their property to potential developers.