Free Daily Headlines


Set your text size: A A A

OP-ED: Joint water-sewer governance is the sensible solution

A recent Hendersonville Lightning editorial asks whether Hendersonville should cede its water system to county. Its answer essentially is negative, since it says that Hendersonville gets nothing from a proposal that would cede the city’s water system to the county.

Well, the Lightning editorial board got this one wrong. There are a number of benefits to a proposed deal between Hendersonville and Henderson County.

The issue is more than just about water. It is about water and sewer. It is true that in the recent past, the city has done what the county has asked on water and sewer issues, but I’ve been around long enough to know that wasn’t always true. When the city refused to extend sewer on its south side in the '80s and '90s, the county ended up having to build a sewer system to replace failing septic systems. That county sewer system was ultimately merged with the city’s system when cooler heads prevailed at the city.

The city also didn’t always agree with the county on water. The problem was the city was extending water lines most anywhere developers wanted them since the city made money on water. The quickest way to promote development is to provide water and sewer, and willy-nilly provision of water can easily undermine the county’s land-use plans and efforts to protect agricultural lands.

The city’s water system was established pursuant to a state statute governing municipal water systems. There is little oversight by the North Carolina Utilities Commission of the city’s water system because the idea is that if water isn’t good or the municipality is charging too much citizens can address those problems by voting out the mayor or council.

However, that isn’t possible with respect to Hendersonville’s water system. Most of the users of that system don’t live in the city. Therefore, they have no ability to correct problems — whether water quality problems or pricing — by changing out the city’s leadership. Moreover, regulatory oversight by the North Carolina Utilities Commission is not available to them.

Most importantly, the current trend of providing sewer to any developer who comes along and wants it in return for “voluntary annexation” threatens to completely undermine all efforts to protect the rural and agricultural areas of Henderson County. City-provided sewer is now in place on the east side of I-26 out Upward Road. Farm lands are quickly being converted to housing developments, and there is little the county can do to change that.

If a deal is struck like the one between Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, Hendersonville could continue to own and operate its water and sewer systems. Any agreement ought to simply address how the water and sewer systems are governed. It need not involve any transfer of ownership to the county.

Rather than having the county build out its own sewer system by building a sewer plant downstream of the existing city sewer plant, the better option is to use the existing city sewer plant, which has sewer capacity, to provide sewer service. No reason to build a new plant.

Former state Sen. Chuck Edwards—now our congressman — secured a $12.7 million grant for the county’s sewer, but that money goes to the city if not used by the county for sewer. Rather than building a redundant sewer system controlled by the county, that money is better spent upgrading or expanding sewer from the city’s current plant.

Public officials often forget that city residents are also county residents. Resolving long existing disputes between the city and county can be very beneficial to city residents since most would agree parochial concerns should be put aside by both the county and city to make sure that water and sewer is provided in the most economically beneficial way consistent with their land-use plans. Moreover, if city and county officials can work together on this set of divisive issues, then there are a range of other issues on which they might begin to work collaboratively.

City and county leaders ought to be praised for their effort to settle their long-term disputes over sewer and water, rather than criticized for that effort. And the city can get more than just a settlement of these long running disputes over water and sewer if an agreement is reached. It would get the $12.7 million currently slated for a new county sewer plant. This is a once in a century opportunity in terms of investment in its sewer infrastructure. It could also get an orderly process for determining where water and sewer infrastructure should go consistent with both its and the county’s land-use plans.

* * * * *

Chuck McGrady, a former attorney, summer camp owner, Flat Rock Village Council member, Henderson County commissioner and state House member, currently serves on the N.C. Board of Transportation and the Henderson County Rail-Trail Advisory Committee among other boards and committees.