Q&A: What you should know about airport water plan

Airport officials in 2018 hosted a community meeting with nearby residents to discuss noise concerns related to the conversion of passenger jet service.

Q. Why does the airport need municipal water?

A. 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. 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.

Q. Why can’t the airport just install new wells?

A. According to GMB engineer Katherine McAllister, an engineering study concluded that the most feasible and cost-effective option was extending water service from Wor-Wic Community College. The existing individual wells serving the airport recorded violations for lead and copper. In addition, the wells have recorded high iron, nitrates and turbidity. A county-sponsored stand-alone water system would have to include water supply wells, treatment facilities, storage for system reliability and fire protection and a distribution system. “While technically feasible,” McAllister wrote in a recent report, “this approach is expensive in both the initial capital cost as well as considerably more costly for annual operation and maintenance.”

Q. What about sewer service to the airport?

A. The airport already has sewer service provided by the city. A sewer main was extended east down Mount Hermon Road about 36 years ago, but a water line was not part of that construction. The line from Wor-Wic to the airport would be water-only, with no sewer option.

Q. What is a “Denied Access Line”?

A. An October 2016 directive from the Water Management Administration, part of the Maryland Department of the Environment, ruled the waterline from Wor-Wic to the airport could only be built as a “Denied Access Line.”  

No properties along the route would be permitted to hook up to the line. State officials don’t want residential growth to occur in rural areas that aren’t part of growth plans.

If access to the line were ever desirable — such as during a public health emergency or some other scenario — Wicomico County’s water and sewer plan would have to be amended. That would require approval from the state, the County Executive and the County Council. Under the rules, the state can’t somehow force either a tie-in or annexation without local approval.

Q. Could the city ever annex the airport?

A. Yes. According to the Pre-Annexation Agreement negotiated between the city and county, however, the county would have to request it and 30 years would have to pass first.

Q. What does it take to be annexed? Could the city ever annex Kilbirnie?

A. Generally, properties must petition the city for annexation. In short, you have to ask for it. Annexations are only approved if the properties are in the city’s urban growth areas. Annexations go through a long process and must ultimately be approved by the elected City Council.

State and county health officials, however, could seek an extension of municipal water and sewer service in the event of a bona fide health crisis.

Under 4-403 of the state’s Local Government Article, a municipality may initiate an annexation; however it may only do so if it has first obtained the consent of 25 percent of the registered voters in the area to be annexed and the owners of 25 percent of the assessed value of the real property in the area.

In theory, a municipality could initiate the annexation if it first obtained the required consents.

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, however, has repeatedly maintained an annexation of any residential properties in the vicinity of the airport would be of no benefit to the city.

Q. But wouldn’t the city profit from the additional tax revenues?

A. Day has also said repeatedly the expenses to service a neighborhood such as Kilbirnie Estates would far surpass the costs. A quick look at the math shows if the city were to annex 100 homes, and the average assessment value of each home was $200,000, the city would generate $1,966.40 per house, for a total of $196,640 per year (100 homes valued at $200,000, at the city’s tax rate of .9832 cents per $100 of assessed value, would equal $196,640 in total annual revenue to the city).

To install sewer service and run additional water pipes, the city would have to borrow millions of dollars in construction costs. Current code requires water and sewer service — not just one — so sewer service would also be needed for Kilbirnie, which would require a large pumping station and a force main.

Q. What about the Parsonsburg Fire Company’s concerns?

A. Fire protection territories are determined by a special panel of the county’s fire chiefs, both paid and volunteer. Those decisions are based on which local fire company is best suited to be the primary response agency to a specific area. With Salisbury insisting it has no interest in a residential annexation, there’s no reason to believe that would change.

Under leasing agreements with Piedmont Airlines, the county already staffs a dedicated firefighting team at the airport to comply with federal regulations that mandate response times in an emergency — times that could not be assured by a volunteer fire company.

Q. Hasn’t the city given sewer and water to residential neighborhoods before without requiring annexation?

A. Yes. In the 1960s and ’70s, the city signed Urban Services Agreements with some neighborhoods, most south and west of Salisbury University. These homes were allowed to receive city water and sewer without annexation, but pay double the fees of in-city residents. The city outlawed new Urban Services Districts during the Wastewater Treatment Plant expansion, which commenced two decades ago. While the city does still provide service to these Urban Services Districts, and also has some customers who receive only water or only sewer service, none of that is allowed under the current code.

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