Study Commission members feel ‘stymied’ in exploring potential solutions to wastewater issues in northeast Chatham

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In November 2021, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners created the Northeast Chatham Wastewater Study Commission — a 12-member group of citizens — to study future growth and wastewater treatment options in the northeastern part of the county. On Monday night, the frustration level of several study group members boiled over in comments directed at Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne.

Regarding potential solutions presented by the study group during its March 23 meeting, commission member Jim Flood shared his exasperation with county officials.

“We just feel like we’re being stymied in our efforts to understand more about these options — that’s all we’re asking for,” Flood said.

The wastewater options discussed by the study commission at last month’s meeting ranged from keeping the current privately-owned decentralized wastewater system that utilizes package plants to the construction of a regional wastewater system for northeast Chatham County — which would include replacing existing package wastewater systems and aging septic systems — and the formation of a public authority to manage the system.

Monday’s meeting, held at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center in Pittsboro, represented the study group’s first in-person meeting. The three previous meetings were held remotely via Zoom.

The original list created by the study group had seven potential solutions. A revised list, presented Monday, lists nine possible wastewater solutions for northeast Chatham County.

Study commission members also presented a number of requests for highly technical information to LaMontagne during the March 23 meeting, but the county manager balked at the request, stating it would not be possible to ascertain the answers to group members’ questions without the county hiring a consulting firm.

Commission member Liz Rolison addressed the information roadblock issue during Monday’s meeting.

“The reason this is coming to a head is the ability to get the additional information to complete this evaluation,” Rolison said. “So if we have a workable set of rules that we can operate within to get that additional information then adding more time and waiting and holding off on doing a final report is fine.”

“We know we’re missing some information — that, I think, is the pivotal issue,” she added.

During the March 23 meeting, LaMontagne admonished study commission members not to speak to officials in other counties or municipalities as representatives of Chatham County in researching potential wastewater solutions. In addition, Lindsay Ray, clerk to the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, advised the group to exercise caution with regard to face-to-face meetings as well as email correspondence due to state statutes regarding open meetings of public bodies and public record laws.

On Monday night, Rolison emphasized that no member of the committee had any desire to act as a representative of the county. Rolison also explained that group members have had individual one-on-one discussions but have been careful not to meet in small groups due to North Carolina’s open meetings law.

She recommended the study group present an interim report to county commissioners at the board’s May 16 meeting with the hope of facilitating a dialogue about how the study group could best fulfill its stated mission.

Flood said he has proposed study commission inviting experts to help enlighten and educate group members on the pros and cons of the nine potential solutions, with all meetings being public in nature to ensure they were in compliance with state statutes.

“You’ve got a huge amount of experience and talent and people with networks and expertise here,” Flood said. “Let us help.”

On Monday night, Perry James, co-chairperson of the study commission, cited a communication breakdown between the citizen group and county officials as another area of concern.

“There’s still a feeling, I believe, that we’re not sure whether we’re putting things out there just to get chewed up or whether there’s a desire — because we’re just not hearing it from either the board or from management as far as, ‘We realize there is a problem and we want informed people to help us decide on what are some good options,’” James said.

LaMontagne said he was also concerned about a communication breakdown between the group and county officials.

“You say you’ve had a lot of discussion and y’all have talked a lot,” LaMontagne said. “I haven’t heard any of that. There’s been very little of that in the meeting. I work for the board and what I’m hearing is a lot of stuff happening that I don’t know that everybody’s hearing, because I haven’t heard and I’ve been at every meeting.”

Rolison said trust was critical to any successful partnership and that the general perception is Chatham County isn’t really interested in a regional solution to its current wastewater challenges.

“That perception is out there, and I think I as a commission member would not feel like I have done my homework if I got all my information through Chatham County and didn’t get it from — directly from some sources,” Rolison said. “I would feel like I haven’t challenged the status quo — to challenge assumptions that have already been shared among the Chatham County staff — if I didn’t talk to some of the direct sources or investigate some of those things for myself.”

Ultimately, the study commission voted unanimously to deliver a status report to commissioners during the board’s May 16 work session in the hopes of finding a path forward.

The final portion of the meeting was dedicated to brainstorming ideas with regard to specific information requests of county officials. Study commission members requested information from LaMontagne and county officials on a range of topics including:

• The size and capacity of the county’s existing wastewater infrastructure

• Service area maps with indications of where a new system could possibly connect into existing infrastructure

• A master plan or “vision” for the work of the study commission

A number of study commission members’ framed their requests as questions, specifically:

• Could Orange Water and Sewer Authority [OWASA] be part a long-term solution to address the wastewater needs in the northeastern Chatham County?

• Would OWASA reconsider expanding the boundary of its current service agreement?

• How do other municipalities approach failing wastewater systems?

• Who would be responsible for buyout of existing wastewater systems?

During its previous meetings, the 12-member study group adopted a resolution that characterized the county’s current strategy for managing wastewater in the northeast corner of the county as “not sustainable long-term,” and articulated the study commission’s ultimate goal of reviewing all possible wastewater treatment options through the prism of smart growth principles.

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