Information campaign under way on airport water

The recent failure by a single vote to advance municipal water service to Wicomico County’s airport has generated a round of finger-pointing, infused with efforts toward education and explanation.

Nearly a month ago, the County Council voted 4-3 to table an intensely negotiated agreement between the city of Salisbury and the county that would see city water piped about 2 miles south from Wor-Wic Community College to the Salisbury-Wicomico Regional Airport.

State, regional and county economic officials consider the hook-up essential to sustaining the airport’s potential as an economic engine, bringing new jobs and industries to an entire region.

State officials feel strongly enough about that possibility they have dedicated some $4 million to the project — but the money will only come if the local governments sign-off in support.

But homeowners who live along Walston Switch Road as well as in a neighborhood just north of the airport fear the municipal connection will be an intrusion and result in the first step in an annexation that would see them eventually paying city taxes and utility fees.

And, while perception is supposedly reality, a roster of planners, engineers, environmental personnel and elected officials have so far been unsuccessful explaining the realities.

The four council members who voted to stop the project — Ernie Davis, Nicole Acle, Larry Dodd and Joe Holloway — left the door open to a change of heart. Each cited a lack of sufficient public input to their opposition and called for a public hearing.

There is even a perception the council is trying to sneak the water agreement through while the public is distracted by a pandemic.

The three council proponents — John Cannon, Bill McCain and Josh Hastings — note the project has been discussed publicly multiple times for more than three years. They also point out that while the project originated nearly six years ago, the council last year approved planning funds for its construction and it previously amended the county’s comprehensive sewer plans to allow water to be piped to the airport.

Therefore, if the council had wanted to stop the project, there were at least three opportunities to do so.

County Executive responds

Days after the vote to table, County Executive Bob Culver took a shot at the legislative body. While praising Cannon, McCain and Hastings, he labeled the council’s decision as “misguided and based on false assertions.”

In a statement, Culver attached a 2016 letter from the Maryland Department of the Environment — the chief arbiter of such a public works project — stating that any water line must be a “Denied Access Line.” State overseers declared that, absent of a public health emergency, the line would never be available for residential tie-in.

“The council has had over three years to seek further clarifications and pose questions,” Culver wrote. “The hysteria that certain council members have created is inexcusable and not in our citizens’ best interests. And it is also counter-productive to our economy at a time when economic stimulus is clearly needed.”

Holloway, who represents District 5 which abuts the airport footprint and includes the Kilbirnie Estates neighborhood just to the north, released a stinging reply to the executive, suggesting residents had been intentionally left in the dark on the project.

Citing confusion on the city’s legal need for a Pre-Annexation Agreement regarding the airport, as opposed to its previous and long-discontinued use of Urban Services Agreements, Holloway said a public clarification was needed.

“(Residents) wanted to know when and why this changed,” Holloway wrote. “I do not call that hysteria but a desire for additional information and clarification. Many made contact with myself and other council members requesting a public hearing. If you live in the county and found there was going to be a pre-annexation agreement in your neighborhood, wouldn’t you want more information?”

Holloway also cited concerns he’s heard from Parsonsburg Volunteer Fire Department members, who fear the water project might mean Salisbury’s Fire Department would claim the territory.

Further, Holloway suggested Culver’s office had not been “forthcoming with information in a timely manner” and the “County Executive bears a responsibility to inform and reply to the requests that the citizens have a voice by holding a public forum.”

McCain weighs in 

Within minutes, McCain circulated a reply to Holloway’s letter, which he said contained an assortment of “inaccuracies and lack of facts.”

“You keep referring to fears of annexation,” McCain wrote. “Please read the water agreements. There is no ‘annexation’ of anything taking place. The city of Salisbury does not do Urban Service Agreements anymore and have not for some time.

“Any provisions of water outside their municipal city limits require a Pre-Annexation Agreement.” McCain wrote. “This does not mean anything is being annexed and in fact to relieve any such fears the airport agreement includes a clause/statement that no such agreement can be considered until 30 years have passed.”

McCain also made the established point that municipalities “cannot just annex anyone’s property — property owners have to petition to be annexed.”

District 2 Councilwoman Acle soon entered the debate with her own reply letter.

“I am in favor of this project and I recognize the regional benefit it will bring. That being said, I echo Joe’s (Holloway’s) concerns. I, too, have heard from people living in that area.

“While Bill (McCain) is correct that the agreements do not mention annexation – that does not mean there isn’t fear of annexation. Who is out there addressing these questions?”

Within hours, the county’s engineering point person on the project, Katherine McAllister of George Miles & Buhr in Salisbury, circulated a letter intended to bring even more clarity.

McAllister’s communication contained a map showing only the airport itself has been approved for the water service and the neighborhoods in question fall in a category that would require either a public health crisis, or drastic action by state environment and county health officials to compel them to take such services.

“The water main project to serve the Airport Facilities has been, and now is more than ever, in the long-term best interest of Wicomico County. It is the most cost-effective and practical approach to protect public health and safety and will promote economic sustainability for not only Wicomico County but also Delmarva,” McAllister’s letter concludes.

The Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Salisbury Committee and the Tri-County Council all urged Council President Larry Dodd to place the resolution back on the council’s agenda for action as soon as possible.

One reason for the urgency is the county has already selected a contractor to execute the project; the construction contract expires May 12 and the county might have to restart the bid process.

Dodd didn’t include the topic on the council’s April 21 meeting, but the airport came up as part of the public comments fielded by council members. Dodd voiced skepticism that holding a hearing in the current remote-access meeting environment would satisfy those who desire that their questions be answered in a public forum.

In a letter to the council, Eric Jones, the Kilbirnie Estates Homeowners Association President, said citizens should be invited to a town hall.

“Members of the community I represent have voiced their concerns of the annexation of the water main proposed along the western border of our community on Walston Switch Road,” he wrote. “I do not speak for all in the community, but I proudly call this place home and I would like to voice my concerns about possible repercussions that the water extension may have today and years from now.”

The next council session is slated for 6 p.m., on Tuesday, May 5.

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