On Thursday, April 19, staff and elected officials from Guilford County, Oak Ridge, Stokesdale and Summerfield met in Oak Ridge to examine and discuss the preliminary results of a new major water study that could have a profound effect on future growth – and the patterns of that growth – in northwest Guilford County.

The results of the study are expected to be made public sometime in May; however, local leaders got a private viewing of those findings at the closed meeting at the Oak Ridge Town Hall.

According to Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad, who attended the briefing, the source of water would be the City of Winston-Salem with a water line running along the NC 150 corridor from Winston-Salem to the towns.

The three towns form a triangle, with Stokesdale at the top. NC 150 runs straight through Oak Ridge and Summerfield and an additional line would extend north to provide water to Stokesdale. Conrad said that’s assuming Guilford County and the towns decide to move forward.

Conrad said the system, if built, would be done in three phases, with the first two phases lasting five years each and the final phase extending 10 years or longer.

The study and other first steps of the project are funded by $14.5 million provided by the NC General Assembly last year to bring municipal water service to much of northwest Guilford County and parts of southwest Rockingham County. The projected cost of the entire system is expected to be revealed in May.

Last summer, Guilford County and Rockingham County appeared to be working together on the project with the water for the Guilford County towns being provided by Rockingham County, but the new plan calls for the water for northwest Guilford County to come from Winston-Salem.

Since state money was made available, Guilford County and the three towns moved forward with the study, but there has been fear and consternation among some residents in northwest Guilford County who say that a widespread municipal water system could lead to congested housing densities, undesirable commercial development, higher taxes and mandatory line hookup fees for residents who moved into the area to enjoy a rural lifestyle and lower taxes.

Those who favor the proposed water system say it would make more development possible, increase property values, alleviate well water contamination problems and strengthen fire protection services.

Last summer, Guilford County, Stokesdale, Oak Ridge and Summerfield selected Greensboro-based Timmons Group to conduct the $175,000 water system feasibility study that’s now nearly complete. That study is meant to help determine whether it’s a good idea for the four local governments to move forward with the project.

Conrad, who represents much of northwestern Guilford County, said the April 19 meeting was productive and informative.

“You’re looking at the 150 corridor basically from west to east,” Conrad said. “So if you think about 150, it’s close enough for Stokesdale to tie in. It also is graded nicely, as far as being downhill, so the water pressure would be good.”

He said the plan entails purchasing water from Winston-Salem and supplementing that supply with large wells in Guilford County.

“At the end of the day it will be up to Guilford County and the three towns to decide if a water system is right for them,” he said. “Stokesdale, Summerfield, Oak Ridge – they have to see what makes sense for them.”

He said those towns may be interested in going ahead with “any, all or some part of” the proposed water system.

According to Conrad, a lot of the discussion at the April 19 meeting in Oak Ridge was about capacity and what type of system would best meet the water needs in that part of the county.

He said some town leaders have their concerns.

“I think you’ve had individuals in all of the municipalities that have had a lot of questions,” he said. “I think at the end of the day we all needed to do a feasibility study to answer these questions. We had to reassure them that this [study] was going to happen and then it would go back to the municipalities for action.”

Some, he said, are concerned about a possible fee for not connecting to the system.

“The municipalities could tie new development to the system – they could – requiring new development to tap into the system,” he said.

Stokesdale already has a water system with water supplied by Winston-Salem; however, the new proposed water project could still benefit that town by bringing down prices, providing more supply and enhancing that town’s fire-fighting efforts.

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing also attended the April 19 meeting.

“One of the things in the study was to contract with a ground water consulting group to look at the feasibility of using ground water as an initial source or as a combination source,” Lawing said. “We might buy from another supplier and run some wells to meet the total demand we need.

“If we were buying from municipality and that went down, we would have the wells; or, if the wells weren’t producing, you would buy more,” the county manager said. “It can be a win-win. In an ideal world, you’d be able to buy treated water at an attractive price and you wouldn’t have to worry about maintaining wells, but it can be done [using both].”

Lawing, who was county manager in Brunswick County before coming to Guilford County in 2013, said that county had a surface water plant that drew water out of the Cape Fear River and also had a groundwater plant that had 14 or 15 wells that supplied a tremendous amount of water to that county.

Lawing said a new water system in northwestern Guilford County would have ramifications for fire protection and public health.

“It would be a more reliable source, with probably a higher quality of water,” he said.

One interesting thing is that the county and the towns aren’t currently looking at sewer even though the language in the state bill provides for it to be part of the project. There was a reluctance on the part of some to include sewer, perhaps because that can lead to major economic development.

“The partners wanted to take it one at a time,” Lawing said, adding that he wasn’t sure why that was.

He said he thought it made sense from the start to include sewer in the discussions, but others saw the matter differently.

“I said, ‘Well, we need to talk about wastewater,’ and they said, ‘No, let’s do it one at a time’ – and I said, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ A lot of people have said, ‘What are you doing about sewer?’ and we say, ‘We’re not doing anything about sewer.’

“That’s the way the group wants to roll,” Lawing added.

He said one of the rules of thumb he’d heard in local government circles is that public water doesn’t drive development, but sewer does. Lawing added that that’s particularly true in areas where the soil won’t perk – though getting soil to perk hasn’t been a major concern in the northwest.

According to Lawing, one key question that remains unanswered is, “What would the governing board look like?”

With the water study findings about to be revealed next month, the debate in the towns is heating up.

Summerfield Town Councilmember John O’Day said he’s going to look at the study results and go from there. He said he’s had no trouble with his own well water but he knows others in the area have.

“I have a well and I’m perfectly happy with it,” O’Day said. “There are folks who have reported issues.”

Summerfield Town Councilmember Dena Barnes, the wife of Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes, said that, in her area, developers built a lot of large houses over the years that dried up water sources.

“I said we need to be involved with it so we can make a decision for our town,” Barnes said of the water system study. “There’s state money there.”

She said there was no reason for anyone to be hesitant to go ahead with the study and get all the information.

“Any town can opt out,” she said. “This is just gathering information to make an informed decision.”

Barnes said that, of course, the really big question has yet to be answered: “What would it cost?”

Summerfield Town Councilmember Teresa Pegram said residents of her town are concerned, among other things, about a “tap out fee.” She said the new system would likely have a valve at every served lot whether the owner wanted to stay on well water or not. She said there could be a charge for not hooking up to the line.

Pegram said it’s possible people will say, “No, I like my well water,” but still be required to pay up.

Late last summer, the water study was expected to take six-months, but it’s turning out to take a few months longer.

The final study results will establish the water needs of the county and the towns, identify locations with specific needs, ascertain a project coverage area and identify potential water sources. The results will also include the development of preliminary service area districts and offer conceptual plans for phased water system improvements. Timmons is also helping develop a preliminary design for the water system and assessing water demand projections based on population growth trends and other factors.

The firm is also expected to provide a preliminary water rate and fee scale as well as investigate funding alternatives and explore governance options.