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Halfway Tree owner agrees to city sewer hookup

The Halfway Tree mobile home park, which is served by a failing septic tank system, has committed in a state administrative proceeding to connect to public sewer.

The Hendersonville City Council next week will take up a request from city administrators to authorize condemnation of private property for a sewer easement to serve the development, which has been cited and fined for pollution violations. The mobile home park owner, Upchurch Marinas Inc., and a prospective buyer from Spartanburg, South Carolina, have been meeting with Hendersonville city officials and state regulators to work out an agreement on the sewer hookup.

In a settlement agreement that Upchurch and the state Department of Environmental Quality reached in November, Upchurch agreed to pay a reduced fine of $35,000 and to apply for connection to the city sewer system by April 1. The city's role, if the council approves, would be to use its condemnation power if necessary to acquire sewer line easements through a neighborhood that adjoins the mobile home park.

The city, "in conjunction with the state of North Carolina and possibly Henderson County, is looking to assist the developer in the construction of a sewer system to serve the park," City Manager John Connet told the council in a memo. The utility officials planned to contact homeowners in Hood Heights to seek voluntary sewer easements. "But since time may be critical, staff is seeking council authorization to institute eminent domain actions" for the land, Connet said.

"Best we can tell it's still moving forward," city Utilities Director Lee Smith said Friday. "We're going to help them with the easement so they can access our sewer main, which is on Erkwood." The use of land to run the sewer line could require eminent domain because the city's legal department and the developer's attorneys found "some ambiguities" in land ownership records, he said. "It's always a last resort" to use condemnation for a utility easement, he added.

Smith and other city engineers have been meeting with state Division of Water Quality engineers and the new prospective buyer, AM Partners LLC, on the public sewer solution since last summer.

“The state reassured them that if they come in and they have plans to fix the problem, they’re not going to hold them hostage for something somebody else did,” Smith said in October. Department of Environmental Quality officials “wanted to see this problem fixed. We were certainly happy to hear they were proposing to purchase the property and remedy this problem.”

Henderson County commissioners and the Flat Rock Village Council have called on the state to work with the city and the park owner on a public sewer solution.

Complaints by downstream property owners against Halfway Tree go back at least 2½ years. The state Division of Water Resources fined the park owner $65,368 in July after regulators determined that the park had discharged wastewater into a stream that feeds Meminger Creek. It cited specific violations in June 2017 of “cloudy, odorous and foamy water” flowing from a stormwater out-fall near the southeastern boundary of the property. DEQ investigators visited the park again in November and December 2018 and, after finding violations, cited the mobile home park owner a second time.

The property owner, Upchurch Marinas Inc., which acquired the mobile home park in 2002, said in its appeal of the state’s enforcement action that it had spent $250,000 “repairing and in some cases replacing septic systems” and had commissioned an engineering study that estimated the cost of connecting to the city sewer system at $1 million to $1.8 million. An appeal by Upchurch's attorney, William Clarke of Asheville, resulted in the reduced fine plus $1,368 in enforcement costs, and the owner's agreement to submit monthly water samples for fecal coliform bacteria tests and to follow through on the city sewer system hookup.