Airport water: Seemingly easy solution not so easy

The site of a future water station on Walston Switch Road.

At the start, it seemed like a routine problem with an easy solution: Wicomico County’s airport needs a new water system; the city of Salisbury has a tower filled with water just 2 miles away.

Run a waterline 1.6 miles south from Wor-Wic Community College, down Walston Switch Road.

The county would install the 12-inch pipe; the city would fill it with water.

Problem solved.

The county would benefit because airport infrastructure expansion could commence in earnest: A reliable, high-pressure water supply would allow fire suppression systems to be constructed, meaning that new hangars could be built, entrepreneurial start-ups supported and the airport’s languishing Business Park to be further developed.

And, the county could close the airport’s inadequate wells, which now produce water that has been listed as containing nitrates, lead and copper. Airport passengers, Piedmont Airlines employees and others who have jobs within the airport’s footprint wouldn’t have to rely on bottled water.

Further adding to the project’s win-win prospects, state officials thought the idea was such a good one that they agreed to pony up more than $4 million — and even placed it at the top of their economic development support list.

The county would only have to pay about $300,000 in engineering and design costs, followed by an annual water bill to the city.

Because of its experience and expertise in managing water systems, the city would also be contracted to maintain the pipe, its assorted valves and hookups, and pumping station.

Precedent existed in such an arrangement: In the 1990s, at the county’s request, the city extended sewer service east down Mount Hermon Road, so the county could open its new terminal building and Business Park.

Back then, water wasn’t seen as essential. Today, the lack of a municipal water system is cited as holding the airport back from reaching its business potential.

Annexation fears

The airport water extension has been a part of public discussion for more than three years. County Executive Bob Culver has repeatedly touted it. Airport Manager Dawn Veatch discusses the need for municipal water each time she talks about the airport’s potential. Piedmont Airlines President and CEO Lyle Hogg has many times termed it essential, and as a major local employer his words carry weight.

According to the elected county officials who directly represent the area, however, the project has raised suspicions among those who live near the airport and along Walston Switch Road, where the already-staked-out water line would run.

The primary concerns have emanated from residents of Kilbirnie Estates, the Walston Manufactured Home Community, and the Twilley Bridge and Quail Ridge neighborhoods.

According to County Council President Larry Dodd and his council colleague Joe Holloway, too many people see the airport extension as a first step to Salisbury’s annexing them into the municipality, thereby saddling them with new taxes.

The airport water would run from the tower at Wor-Wic Community College.

State, county and city officials, however, insist that the rules don’t allow that to happen.

State environmental regulations, as well as an agreement pending before the county and city councils, reflect various facts:

  • The water line is what state officials call a “denied access line.” That means no property owners along the route are allowed to tie in and the water can only be used to serve users within the airport’s platted boundaries.
  • Municipalities such as Salisbury cannot force residents to be annexed. Annexations are not initiated by municipalities — property owners wishing to be annexed must petition a city to be included.
  • Under Salisbury’s most recent codes, annexations can only occur within the city’s designated growth areas or on tracts adjacent to the city limits. None of the south Walston Switch Road neighborhoods are either adjacent to the city or on the city’s growth maps.
  • A primary condition of state funding is that no tie-ins are allowed. While state environmental officials acknowledge an economic need for water being directed to the airport, they are adamant that growth should be curbed in rural areas that haven’t been designated for development.

Pre-Annexation Agreement

The city’s water and sewer systems are valuable assets, and over the past two decades the city has changed its codes to ensure city taxpayers are protected. While some neighborhoods west and south of Salisbury University were developed in the 1960s and ’70s under so-called “urban services agreements” — which allowed property owners to pay double the normal sewer and water rates and escape city annexation — those are no longer permitted.

The new rule: If you want city sewer and water, you have to become part of the city.

Under the pending Pre-Annexation Agreement negotiated by County Executive Culver and Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, none of the properties outside the airport plat would be eligible for city inclusion. The county could, however, one day ask the city to annex the airport itself — but the city couldn’t push the issue for 30 years.

Several county-owned tracts are already adjacent to the city but have never been annexed, including Wicomico High School, the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center, Pemberton Historical Park and portions of the James B. Bennett High School property.

Easements have already been staked out along Walston Switch Road.

Parkside High School is inside the city limits; the new Sheriff’s Office in west Salisbury will be inside the city. 

Even if the city were to someday annex the airport property, the airport itself would remain under the control of Wicomico County.

The Pre-Annexation Agreement was presented to the County Council last Tuesday night for consideration. Its highpoints:

  • The county could petition annexation or the expiration of the agreement 30 years from the date of signing and the airport property becoming contiguous to the city’s corporate limits.
  • The county will pay the city for maintenance and repairs of the water line.
  • The county will pay the city its normal fees for the number of hookups within the airport plat and water use.
  • The county will construct the water pipeline from just south of Wor-Wic to the airport and the water system must meet city engineering specifications.
  • The Airport Water System will be owned by the city after the county pays all outstanding loans or other financial obligations related to the system.

Rather than rely on the city, the county could — in theory — construct a new water system at the airport, complete with new wells and a water tower of standpipe. Such an effort would cost many millions of dollars and have difficulty winning state financial backing, given the price variances and ready access to the city’s water supply.

Council tables agreement

Meeting in an April 7 legislative session and taking its first look at the Pre-Annexation Agreement, a divided Wicomico County Council tabled the measure on a 4-to-3 vote.

Councilman Joe Holloway.

In a meeting made even more awkward because it was being held remotely, with the seven members communicating via computers, Councilman Holloway said residents were both confused and concerned by the agreement and a public hearing was needed.

“The County Executive’s Office needs to reach out and explain this,” Holloway said. “There has not been enough reaching out. The ‘annexation’ word amps people up.”

Council President Dodd agreed. “The public hasn’t been able to voice an opinion,” he said.

Though the issue has been discussed several times over the past three years, Dodd added: “It feels like we’re sneaking it through during a pandemic.”

Councilman Ernie Davis suggested the county build its own water system at the airport; Councilwoman Nicole Acle said she supported public input.

Council members John Cannon, Bill McCain and Josh Hastings supported the agreement. Cannon, however, said he was concerned that the council was being asked to take action without a formal work session being held first.

During the back-and-forth, the council’s own attorney, Robert B. Taylor, argued the language in the agreement is “very confusing and hard to read.” County Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg quickly countered that the agreement “was very simple,” with Taylor immediately declaring “it is not.”

The agreement was negotiated between City Attorney Mark Tilghman and County Attorney Paul Wilber, for sign-off by Culver and Day.

The water line was discussed at length in a Jan. 21 council session, when then-County Engineer Dallas Baker, Salisbury Infrastructure and Development Director Amanda Pollack and engineer Catherine McAllister of George Miles & Burr in Salisbury briefed the council.

“The condition of (state) funding is that no ties are allowed,” Baker said at the time. “It is a dedicated line.”

Pollack also explained that Denied Access Lines are a tool the state uses to curb growth in a rural area.

Strausburg said a construction contractor has been selected and the county has an acceptable bid.

Day said the agreement with the county says that the airport cannot be annexed any sooner than 30 years.

“All along we’ve said we don’t want to annex the airport,” he said.

The community’s business sector strongly supports the water project, with both the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce and Greater Salisbury Committee lobbying for action.

“This project is a no-brainer,” said GSC President and CEO Mike Dunn. “Our airport is a local and regional asset. Getting water to the airport is critical, for Piedmont Airlines, and for the airport’s future. The State of Maryland is fully behind this project. The business community is fully behind this. The City Of Salisbury and Wicomico County have worked out the details on the pre-annexation agreement. It is time to get this project moving. Failure to move this project forward is unacceptable.”

Business Park

County officials have renewed their plans to develop the Business Park at the airport, anchored by a commercial drone facility — the municipal water line is necessary for fire suppression systems there.

In all, more than 4 miles of pipe would be needed to hook up all of the airport plat properties.

The 8,000-square-foot hangar for the SBY Unmanned Aircraft System Center for Innovation has been under construction since November and was scheduled to open this summer. It will have a door wide enough to accommodate aircraft with 80-foot wingspans.

The UAS Center will be among several planned improvements at the airport, including a runway extension to better accommodate jets.

Airport Manager Veatch also wants to build a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster distribution center at the airport that could store medical supplies, diapers, water, nonperishable foods and other essential items.

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