Residents get reprieve on utility hookups

By Tom Joyce

May 2, 2014

Although two Mount Airy commissioners came to a meeting Thursday afternoon prepared to get tough on annexed city homeowners who haven’t connected to municipal water and sewer services, those residents eventually won a reprieve.

City council members voted 4-1 to explore other alternatives to mounting legal action against hundreds of property owners who haven’t hooked up to one or both utilities in violation of city regulations, despite repeated warnings.

“We’ve sent letters,” said Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, who along with fellow board member Steve Yokeley asked that the matter be put on the agenda for the meeting. “I just feel like it’s time” to get tough, she said.

Concern has been voiced for months among the council about some people not making utility connections that were required when their properties were annexed by the city, some as far back as 2007.

Commissioner Brinkley was one of those residents affected when her Hollyview Forest neighborhood was taken in through forced annexation — a move occurring when none of the five present commissioners were in office.

Brinkley said she did not want to be in the city — “but I’ve done my part,” she added regarding her home being connected to municipal utilities. Brinkley said she knows financial difficulties have kept some from complying, “but it is something that is required by the (city) ordinances.”

Yokeley said Thursday afternoon it was his understanding that letters sent to non-connected homeowners in 2012 basically represented the last chance for them to comply before legal action. “I think it’s time we need to follow up on it,” he said.

At last report, 148 locations were identified in the city limits as having no water or sewer hookups, and 409 cases of water customers without sewer service. In addition to Hollyview Forest, areas taken in through a round of forced annexations included the Sandy Level, Cross Creek and Laurel Court subdivisions.

Homeowners were given 18 months to connect to the respective utilities once lines were in place.

Brown Defends Delays

In initially taking a hard-line stance Thursday about mandatory hookups, Yokeley pointed out that most people have complied with the rules and others should somehow be required to do likewise. “I don’t think it’s fair to the vast majority of people who have connected.”

However, the overall tone of the discussion seemed to soften after Commissioner Dean Brown offered a spirited defense of homeowners.

Brown referred to the fact that the annexations were forced onto citizens, which he considered an infringement on individual freedoms. This has left the present commissioners having “to clean up an unpopular decision” made by the past board members, the commissioner said.

“It is now the responsibility of each citizen to make the connections,” Brown continued. But he doesn’t think the municipality should “demand” that hookups occur within a specific time frame.

“I understand that many people cannot pay out the $800 for water, plus $700 for sewer,” he said of tap-on fees charged for each, “then pay a plumber in some cases $1,000 or more to complete” work on their properties.

“The citizens that live in these neighborhoods are not all rich,” Brown said. “Some of these people are working three jobs or more just to keep their head above bankruptcy.”

Rather than proceed with legal action, Brown offered another solution. “I suggest that no action be taken on this today and the (city) staff do some further analysis on the situation. It’s just common sense.”

Brown advocated city officials working with property owners on a one-to-one basis, which has been done already and achieved successful outcomes in some instances.

Commissioner Jim Armbrister agreed. “I would like to see us take some time to explore other alternatives” to legal proceedings, he said. However, Armbrister said the end result of that should be trying to get everyone hooked up as required.

Yokeley said he also would favor studying the situation more, including seeing how other municipalities handle the problem.

“I certainly agree with Dean that it should be done on an individual basis,” Yokeley said. “Every situation is different.”

Brown said Thursday that it isn’t right to make people connect to services they don’t need at present, and that eventually their wells will dry up and septic tanks will become inoperable. “They will have to connect (but) without the stress that an immediate requirement will cause.”

Mayor, Cawley Comment

Although Mayor Deborah Cochran didn’t have a vote, she did weigh in on the matter. “The city has never taken anyone to court,” she said of its history in handling water and sewer connections. “And I don’t think we need to start.”

Commissioner Jon Cawley was the lone dissenter in the board’s subsequent 4-1 vote to have the staff explore the matter further and report back to the commissioners with its findings in mid-June.

Cawley offered no comments during the meeting regarding the “no” vote, but explained his position afterward.

One reason was that he believed the commissioners should have made a decision Thursday, rather than put more work on the staff members and leaving it up to them to come up with an answer.

Cawley said the ultimate solution should not include taking people to court. “My feeling is, we’re going to end up as a city spending a good deal of money on legal fees.” As an alternative, Cawley said something similar to a lien could be placed on properties without connections in which present owners wouldn’t have to hook up — but that would be required if homes were sold.

“People should hook up,” Cawley said.

“It is not fair.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.