County engineers outline Dagsboro sewer capacity

Dagsboro residents and elected officials heard from a whole squad of technical folk at a special meeting on April 10 — four representatives from Sussex County’s engineering department and three from county-affiliated engineering firm Stearns & Wheler.

They’d come to discuss sewer capacity, and when that many engineers gather in a room, you know there’s a project afoot.

It’s right on time, too. With development booming in Dagsboro, some residents have voiced concern that the county may run out of sewer capacity in the not-too-distant future to serve all the projects either approved or getting close.

Indeed, although some developers have indicated a desire to build faster, Assistant County Engineer Russ Archut recommended phasing projects on the board at a rate of 30 equivalent dwelling units (EDUs) per year, at least for the next few years. (Basically, one single family home counts as one EDU, although the calculations are a little different for commercial projects.)

But when Mayor Wayne Baker asked if the town needed to stop taking applications for new projects, County Engineer Mike Izzo replied, “That’s not something we want to advocate.”

Archut admitted the recent growth spurt had taken everyone by surprise, but the county has plans to address capacity limitations in the Dagsboro-Frankford Planning Area, and he said those plans were on the fast track.

Stearns & Wheler engineer Thor Young covered some of the details.

Existing capacity at the nearby Piney Neck Regional Wastewater Facility (which handles sewer from the entire surrounding area) tops out at 200,000 gallons per day (gpd), he said.

Although there is some variability from year to year, he said it was presently treating about 130,000 gpd.

Each EDU sends, very roughly, 300 gpd of wastewater to the treatment plant, so the leftover 70,000-gpd capacity would be enough to accommodate another 233 EDUs.

Here’s the problem: the town has about 12 projects in the works, and when they all reach 100 percent build-out, they’ll take up more than 1,300 EDUs:

(Two big residential projects, General’s Green and the Highlands at Pepper Creek, account for nearly 800, smaller projects make up most of the rest, and commercial is slated to take up perhaps 100 or so.)

Considered all in a lump, it looks like a major shortfall. However, as Izzo and Archut reminded those in attendance, development just doesn’t work that way.

First off, some of the projects still have a long way to go before they reach groundbreaking. General’s Green, for instance, just recently received preliminary site plan approval, and could easily be another year getting to final approvals.

And even after the projects start rolling, there is typically a lag between construction phase completion and the sale of the properties, Izzo added.

Individual property owners who wish to build on their existing lots could do so, Archut said — those individuals would take priority, and not be counted toward the maximum number of EDUs the county could absorb between now and the pending improvements at Piney Neck.

According to Archut, the county had entered into agreements with the developers for Chapel Crossing before anyone saw the development boom coming, so that project was effectively grandfathered, but again, the engineering department would probably recommend a building cap at 30 EDUs per year, per project, for all the others.

That doesn’t mean that if one developer built less than 30, a different developer could build more than 30, he clarified. But Archut suggested the whole capacity shortfall might be resolved within four or five years, at which point development could proceed at free-market pace.

Young said they expected to complete the Dagsboro-Frankford Planning Area study within 18 months. Izzo, throwing out an “off the top of my head” timeline, suggested engineering could deliver the Piney Neck improvements within three years of study completion.

As far as disposal capacity, Izzo said he’d brokered some real estate acquisitions in the Piney Neck area in preparation for this day. The county purchased about 140 acres for spray irrigation in 2004, he said, and had since initiated hydrogeological testing.

According to Izzo, testing to date indicates that the soils are good, capable of absorbing substantial wastewater flows. The county has to treat this discharge to the point that, after the spray-irrigated crops (or trees) take up some of the excess nitrogen and the rest trickles down through the soil, it was drinking water quality by the time it reached groundwater, Izzo assured.

As Young pointed out, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) is slated to establish more stringent nutrient reduction standards, but the county was planning for those pending regulations.

Finding room to handle the actual treatment might be trickier, Izzo admitted — the existing Piney Neck site is approaching 100 percent coverage on the parcel. He said plans for improvements would incorporate new, more-compact treatment technologies, but suggested the county might start looking into additional land acquisition as well.