Everyone knows you get three wishes when you rub a lamp with a genie inside, but right now Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing is trying to get three wishes granted by President Pro Tem of the state Senate Phil Berger.
Lawing wants Guilford County government to have more leeway in how to set up a proposed new water system to serve northwest Guilford County, and he hopes Berger and the state legislature will allow that system to get water from sources other than those in Rockingham County. Lawing would also like to see the state grant Guilford County the right to access project money up front, rather than have Guilford County shell out the money and get reimbursed later by the state.
These would require changes to legislation that Berger and state lawmakers put in place last year that established a timeline and made funds available for a large water system project in northwest Guilford County and in southern Rockingham County.
As part of that effort, the state set aside $14.2 million to construct a system that would provide municipal water for the towns of Oak Ridge, Stokesdale and Summerfield – three towns that could choose to be part of the project. The new water system is likely to become a reality given that state funds are already in place for that purpose.
Stokesdale already has city water and the town currently purchases its water from Winston-Salem/Forsyth County City/County Utilities. However, Stokesdale may benefit from the new project by extended water services, greater supply and lower prices, as well as by having a backup system if the town elects to take part in this project.
In the letter, Lawing thanked Berger for initiating the 2016 legislative action that kicked off the process. Lawing is a big cheerleader for more economic development in Guilford County and he has said in the past that he felt a significant expansion of water services in Brunswick County – where Lawing was the county manager for about a decade before coming to Guilford County – contributed greatly to economic development efforts there.
“The development of a water system could enhance the overall quality of life in the area through improved public safety, public health and economic development opportunities,” Lawing wrote in the letter.
In recent months, the town councils of Oak Ridge, Stokesdale and Summerfield have voted to move forward with the study. Guilford County has now issued a request for qualifications from consultants and expects to have a firm hired for that study by next month.
Rockingham County has plenty of excess water and would like nothing more than to sell it to northwestern Guilford County, and the new project would also mean the expansion of water services in southern Rockingham County as those main water lines are extended to the Rockingham/Guilford county line.
In his letter to Berger, Lawing wrote that he understood Berger would be offering some amendments to the legislation and Lawing stated that there were changes Guilford County would like to see.
For instance, the original 2016 legislation calls for the formation of a new water and sewer authority that would include Guilford County, Rockingham County and one or more municipalities in each county. Lawing requested that the water authority requirement be dropped and instead be “left as an optional governance structure involving one or both counties.” Lawing stated that this would allow the project to move forward if only one town backs building a municipal water system after the study is complete.
Another request involved the ability to get water from counties other than Rockingham County. Lawing wrote: “We know that the planning and development of a regional water system in northwest Guilford County will require significant financial obligation. One of the primary factors in making the regional water system feasible will be identifying and contracting with reliable, long-term and cost effective wholesale water provider(s). This may result in the need to interconnect with water suppliers in counties other than Rockingham and Guilford. It would give us more flexibility in identifying the most cost effective water supplier(s) if this restriction could be eliminated.”
He also stated a desire for Guilford County to get access to the state money that will be used for the study.
“We are requesting the ability to utilize the funds appropriated in the bill to pay for the costs of the feasibility study,” Lawing wrote. “Specifically, we would like the ability to draw down state funds to pay project costs directly instead of fronting the money and seeking reimbursement from the state.”
Lawing also asks for new specific language in the legislation “allowing state funds to be used for engineering design and construction of the system.”
The letter states that if the requirement to establish a new water authority remains, the county hopes to see an extension in that deadline to June 30, 2018. The current deadline is June 30 of this year.
Though most area leaders are gung-ho on the idea of a major water system in the northwest, not everyone loves the idea. Some citizens are already starting to voice their opposition and there were some votes cast against the study in the town council meetings.
Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad, who represents much of the area that would be serviced by the new water system, said that, at this stage of the process – with the county and the towns conducting a study funded by state money – there’s absolutely no reason anyone should be opposed to it.
“Why would you not want to have a study?” Conrad asked. “I do not understand the rationale. We know water in the northwest has been a long-term issue.”
Over the years, there have been numerous instances of contaminated well water in that part of the county and the limitations of a well system have caused problems for some businesses. Long periods of drought in recent years have also created concerns – especially with rural fire departments that want easy access to water.
Conrad said that, given the problems in that area with water and the potential pluses, there is a “duty to know” the benefits and issues regarding the project.
Regardless, there are those who do not want the study conducted because they see that as the first step toward municipal water – something some people say the towns would be better off without.
Some residents are concerned the growth that will come with such a system will hurt the rural atmosphere of the area and about things like possible mandatory hookup fees for some property owners.
Teresa Pegram, who was born in Summerfield and is a lifelong resident, said the project will be expensive and isn’t needed. She said the study is just the clear first step before green-lighting the large project.
“I think this is all leading to public water, in which I am strongly opposed,” she said.
“I know the town paid about $4,000 for a feasibility study in 2016 and I could not find in that study that we need water,” she said, adding that there were some concerns about needed options for fire departments.