City OKs utility hookup policy

First Posted: 1/15/2015

After months of debate, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners approved an amendment to the city utility ordinance Thursday night.

It requires residential and commercial properties to be connected to the municipal water and sewer systems, but in lieu of that will allow owners to pay a monthly availability fee to avoid hardship. This will go into effect on July 1, and while no figure was cited Thursday night, a $23.74 monthly charge has been suggested.

The revised ordinance also will allow the granting of hardship deferrals for financial, medical or other reasons, or for cases in which utility connections at a certain site would not be feasible for structural or geographical reasons.

This new measure basically addresses cases in which owners of property annexed by Mount Airy in recent years have not complied with a rule requiring those hookups within 18 months of water/sewer services becoming available, such as through the extension of lines.

City officials long have recognized a need to address chronic offenders of the mandatory hookup policy, given that others have complied and spent thousands of dollars on tap fees and plumbing work as a result. But they also have understood the financial realities that keep some on fixed incomes from undertaking such major expenditures.

With those two considerations in mind, officials struggled toward the end of 2014 to finalize an ordinance amendment with wording reflecting the board’s intent.

One sticking point concerned who would have responsibility for utility connections in cases where property changed hands — the buyer or seller — and identifying someone to monitor those transactions.

The final ordinance OK’d Thursday addresses this issue in a most-definitive way.

“All that’s out,” City Attorney Hugh Campbell said of the elimination of the property transfer question from the measure altogether.

He added that the only time a property exchange will come into play would be cases in which a site granted a deferral is sold to another. “Then the new owner would have to apply and get their own deferral,” Campbell said. “And that was a clear directive from the board.”

The streamlined ordinance also addresses a concern involving properties with operable private sewage-disposal systems. It states that those with systems that have been approved by county or state health personnel can obtain temporary exemptions from the mandatory connection.

Private systems that face major repairs no longer would be in compliance, thus making the mandatory hookup apply.

In response to a question from Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, the city attorney said that simply having a septic tank pumped out is a maintenance function that would not make a site non-compliant.

A third question concerned when the ordinance revision, and new fee, will go into effect. A date of early this year had been recommended, but Campbell said the final document set the July 1 date to allow time for city staff members to notify affected property owners and otherwise implement the measure.

Property owners, meanwhile, will receive sufficient notice that they either need to proceed with utility connections or apply for deferrals.

“The effective date of July 1 is much better for citizens,” Mayor Deborah Cochran said, especially with winter gripping the community.

In contrast with recent discussions on the utility issue, Thursday’s vote by the city commissioners, which was unanimous, occurred after virtually no discussion among board members.

Apartment Vote

Another 5-0 decision Thursday night effectively put an end to a project in which a controversial 60-unit apartment complex was planned for a site on South Franklin Road in the vicinity of the State Employees Credit Union.

As recently ordered by a judge, the board revoked a conditional-use permit the city government had approved last spring to accommodate the apartments that neighboring property owners were opposed to due to traffic, safety and other reasons.

Under Thursday’s action, the related rezoning of the proposed 11-acre apartment site, owned by Rick Shelton, also will revert from a designation that allowed multi-family use back to an R-20 designation that restricts it to single-family residences.

That conforms to the predominant character of the area in question, where a Charlotte firm, The Flatiron Group, had sought to build 15 quadruplexes.

The decision last year by the city was roundly criticized by residents of the area who believed that the way the matter was handled deprived them of due process.

This included the holding of a quasi-judicial public hearing that resembled a court trial and restricted what apartment opponents could say about how the project might be detrimental to the neighborhood.

After the matter was challenged in court and argued before a Forsyth County judge, he ruled against the municipality — largely based on the grounds that Mount Airy had improperly placed the burden of proof on the opponents about possible harm.

That burden, Judge David L. Hall wrote, instead should have been put on the developer to show the apartments would not be disruptive, which didn’t occur.

Campbell, the city attorney, was philosophical about the matter Thursday night when recommending that the commissioners revoke the conditional-use permit and reverse the rezoning,

“In litigation, there is a perception there are winners and losers,” Campbell said, “but this is not a…situation where there’s a loser.”

The attorney indicated that it was more a matter of a decision being made and then undergoing an appeal process that showed what the American system of justice is all about.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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