City needs to address lots without water, sewer service

We are more than 15 years into the 21st century, which means we take certain things for granted. One of those is water and sewer accessibility inside the corporate limits of most cities and towns — certainly along major highways and in developed business areas.

That’s why we found it surprising to learn last month that plans for a business along U.S. 52 were potentially going to be derailed because there was no water or sewer line access at the property.

We weren’t the only ones surprised. City Commissioner Jon Cawley was taken aback to learn of this situation, so much so he’s suggesting the city consider a lower tax rate for people who own such tracts in Mount Airy.

This isn’t the first time such property has been discovered in the city. In 2013 a local dentist wanted to build an office and warehouse on North Street, only to learn there was no water line there. The city ultimately paid nearly $88,000 to extend a municipal water line to the site.

Then in 2014 a similar issue came to light elsewhere on North Street, when plans for an office building construction were endangered by no existing sewer line to the area. The city extended a sewer line, at a cost of $15,000.

Now, the city is facing an estimated cost of $194,000 to supply water and sewer to the proposed business on U.S. 52, a sum some in the city believes might be cost prohibitive.

With the high cost of extending the utilities to the site, and the fact that a recent city report showed the same problem at dozens of similar properties in the city, we understand the reluctance of Mount Airy officials to putting up the money for extending the utilities. If land owners want to develop those properties, the city could quickly be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe more.

At the same time, when a person or business purchases land inside the Mount Airy city limits, they understand they are going to pay double taxes to both Surry County and the city. For those extra city taxes, a property owner has certain reasonable expectations. Among those are beefed up fire and police protection; additional recreational opportunities provided by the city; roads and sidewalks maintained by the city; protective zoning regulations; and access to municipal water and sewer lines.

That last one — access to city utilities — is key. Without the ability to build a home or business, which needs water and sewer services, the land is essentially worthless, suitable for maybe a picnic table for family outings or maybe locating a flea market there (at least for now — the city is considering new regulations on flea market operations).

At the very least, the city should offer a significantly reduced tax rate on the land. To be fair, the city might consider eliminating tax bills altogether for such dead lots, because the owner certainly is not enjoying any of the benefit those extra city taxes are supposed to provide.

If Mount Airy officials aren’t willing to do this, then the city should put in place a plan to pay for extending water and sewer services to such locations.

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