Testing the waters: Private sewage system’s shortcomings devalue Briar Chapel homes

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Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment in a series investigating Chatham County’s water and sewer infrastructure. Previous stories have explored plans for infrastructure expansion in Pittsboro, Siler City and county-operated facilities. While the county government oversees water utilities in unincorporated Chatham, sewage systems are left to private developers and operators.

BRIAR CHAPEL — After years decrying deficiencies in their neighborhood’s private wastewater treatment plant, Briar Chapel residents have new quantitative evidence to prove that sewage smell and intermittent leaks are more than just a nuisance: their homes have been officially devalued as a result.

As earlier installments of this series explored, private sewage solutions across Chatham County are regularly plagued by capacity limitations, low-quality construction materials and aging facilities in need of repair. But the wastewater treatment plant in Briar Chapel — centrally located among the cluster of homes — stands apart as notoriously unsound.

More than 87,000 gallons of sewage have spilled from the community’s plant in 32 different leaks since 2016, according to the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality. Of those, more than 72,000 gallons drained into Pokeberry Creek, a tributary of the Haw River and Jordan Lake.

The frequent spills have suffused Briar Chapel with rank air as raw sewage bleeds onto private land and runs through the streets. The treatment plant — which was privately developed and has been privately managed by various operators over the years — is located at the neighborhood’s highest point, worsening the effects of leakage and complicating facility upkeep.

“Almost 85% to 90% of the spills have been due to pipe breaks because of the pressure build-up that occurs in our system,” Liz Rolison, a Briar Chapel resident said. “The pipes were insufficient for the terrain that we have — you know sewage does not flow uphill. So you have to pump it up, and that creates pressures and that’s created the pipe breaks.”

Rolison has lived in Briar Chapel since 2014. It didn’t take long after moving into her new home before she started to hear of sewage issues, which had haunted parts of Briar Chapel for years. After some investigation, Rolison uncovered what she thought was a pattern of irresponsible and shortsighted management, which perpetuated the wastewater treatment plant’s breakdown.

“The more I dug,” she said, “the more I felt like things weren’t transparent, weren’t being told to residents, and as a result, they were causing harm.”

She and a group of other Briar Chapel homeowners formed a 501(c)(4) non-profit called Stop Chatham North in response to the facility’s mismanagement. The group’s mission is “to represent concerned homeowners in Briar Chapel who want to see that the owner and management of the wastewater treatment plant are held accountable for managing appropriately within regulatory guidelines, and with a minimum of nuisance conditions,” she told the News + Record.

Until recently, Briar Chapel’s plant was operated by a water, wastewater and public works management company called Envirolink, and owned by Old North State Water Company. In August, ONSWC was absorbed by Integra Water, after which Envirolink resigned as operator of the sewage plant. Since then, Greener EHS Solutions has taken over the facility’s operations. The News + Record could not reach a company representative for comment.

Rolison and Stop Chatham North have fought for years to demonstrate the need for an improved wastewater treatment system, either from substantial modification to the current facility, or through new services at a different treatment center. In discussions with Chatham County management — the board of commissioners and county staff — Stop Chatham North has found less support than its members would have liked.

But now they’re armed with new evidence in support of their cause. In the 2020 round of state-mandated property reappraisals, almost all of Chatham County homes saw considerable value increases. Most Briar Chapel home values went up by almost 20% on average, consistent with the total overall valuation of parcels in Chatham County.

But not those closest to the wastewater treatment plant.

“We took a random sample of homes that are within proximity, so all of the streets that are closest to the wastewater treatment plant, including several of the streets that run away from the wastewater treatment plant,” Rolison said. “And what you find is that there are market devaluations on average of 9% with some homes as much as 18% to 22%.”

After consulting with the Chatham County Tax Information Office, the Stop Chatham North team confirmed its suspicions — homes near the sewage plant decreased in value because of “the odor conditions and the sewage spills.”

“The tax valuation that recently occurred is the most tangible evidence of damages to homeowners within Briar Chapel that we’ve seen so far,” Rolison said.

Problems to solutions

Perry James is one Briar Chapel resident whose house, in close range of the sewage plant, saw a drop-off in value. His property valuation fell by about 10% from four years ago, the last time Chatham County performed the reappraisal process.

“And by the time they use a kind of market value increase to what your adjusted value is, it really makes the numbers more than just a flat 10%, like it is in my case, or 15% or whatever,” James said. “So it does certainly get your attention.”

James knows more about wastewater management and property valuations than most. Before retiring to Briar Chapel in 2017, he worked 35 years for the City of Raleigh, most of that time as its chief financial officer and briefly as interim city manager.

“So, of course, one of our big areas that required a lot of important financing was public utilities, the water and sewer system in Raleigh,” he said. “And so I had seen a lot of that, worked closely with that group a lot, really appreciated the value of kind of planning in that aspect and getting ahead of your needs.”

As Raleigh’s CFO, James worked intimately with the team that facilitated an expansive merger between Raleigh’s water and sewer systems and those of six nearby governments about 15 years ago.

“That to this day is viewed as one of the more successful mergers in the state,” James said. “It’s often used as an example of how to do that in a kind of a win-win way — to provide good, needed services at reasonable cost.”

James and Rolison think the solution to Briar Chapel’s wastewater treatment dilemma is to follow a similar model. They hope county oversight will agree to support a public-private task force to investigate wastewater solutions in the mutual interest of all unincorporated communities and the county’s quickly developing municipalities.

“Particularly as growth and progressive changes in this area of the county are moving quickly,” James said, “it’s a good time, I think, to further involve stakeholders and really look at what the future needs to be.”

In response to calls for Chatham to assume responsibility for sewage systems in neighborhoods such as Briar Chapel, government representatives have said the county’s involvement is unlikely, as the News + Record previously reported. But James emphasizes that he is not proposing private sewage systems should come under county authority.

“We’re not asking them to buy into any plan to operate, or purchase or do anything dealing with the systems here, we’re just asking the county to facilitate the discussion,” he said. “Back to when I told you about the City of Raleigh-County merger, it was Wake County who brought everybody to the table. If they hadn’t done that, we may not never have had that merger. But they said, ‘We’re the responsible party to bring people together and look at best solutions,’ and that’s all we’re asking Chatham County to do.”

Rolison hopes the call for countywide teamwork between government representatives and community members will mark an important inflection point and lead to more constructive conversation on wastewater systems in unincorporated Chatham.

“We’ve been talking about the problems for so long, it’s time to start really having the right people brought in to look at the solutions,” she said. “And by asking Chatham County to be involved, we’re not asking them to take financial responsibility for solving this problem. We’re asking them to share the leadership, to help develop a strategy for this section of the county.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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