Requests to be annexed into the town by individual homeowners and subdivisions or to just hook on to town sewer are increasing.
At the July Town Board meeting, Mayor Pat Taylor initiated a discussion regarding current policies and where the town should go here on out.
“We have had several inquiries from neighborhoods and potential neighborhoods about annexation. We have also had inquiries from people who just want to tap on to the sewer line who are willing to pay a very substantial attachment fee as well as triple rates like people on water outside the town limits now pay,” said Mayor Taylor. “Josh [Town Manager] and I feel the board needs to review our policy as it now stands and possibly formalize it.”
According to his research, Mayor Taylor said back in the ‘60s the town took the stance that only in-town citizens could get town water and sewer. This came after an era of development where several satellite subdivisions outside the town limits were allowed to have town water. The town soon realized this was unsustainable.
“Developers built waterlines in subdivisions and then came to the town to ask for permission to tap into the town’s water system, and to be quite frank when the town said ‘yes’ and took over those lines, the town had to replace them,” he said.
The board quickly agreed that just saying “yes” to an annexation request wasn’t fiscally sound.
“If someone or a group asks to be annexed it needs to be carefully studied because sometimes a request could require that we spend a lot of money without any history of tax income from that area to be annexed. So, there is a balance there,” said the mayor.
Specifically, he said annexation and sewer hook-ups are the kinds of issues the town needs to address. Furthermore, the town needs to be very careful that it doesn’t make policy that isn’t beneficial to the town.
Town Manager Josh Ward said there are several scenarios that have come up.
One, existing subdivisions outside the town limits want to be annexed because of failing or substandard infrastructure.
Two, last year a large contiguous tract of land along US 64 east and the Cullasaja River with access to electric, water and sewer was annexed and three, there are other property owners next to the town’s sewer line that runs from the town to the hospital who want to hook on but don’t want to be annexed.
Years ago, the town agreed to run a sewer line to the hospital based on a public health and safety stance, but no one along the route can tap into it – just the hospital.
“Last year’s annexation of the property between US 64 and the Cullasaja River is a large piece of property that had available utilities – electric, water, sewer – but it isn’t subdivided. It was annexed in but when they subdivide, they will have to follow all our subdivision ordinances – 40 ft. rights-of-way, 18 ft. wide roads, utilities installed according to the town standards,” said Ward. “The difference is that one of the inquiries we had recently is from an existing development that doesn’t meet our standards. So how do we address that? That is what we are looking at – already subdivided with utilities that aren’t up to our standards.”
Commissioner Amy Patterson said there are a lot of issues to consider – properties would have to be contiguous to the town limits for one and what it would cost the town to basically expand.
“People usually ask to be annexed because they need something done that they don’t want to pay for. But the town doesn’t have any money except what it takes from its citizens. So the town isn’t going to take money from citizens who have been paying taxes and user fees for years and years and suddenly use it to upgrade somebody who is outside town and never paid any of those fees – basically giving them the same benefit given to the town folks,” she said. “I understand why they want to come, but it’s not fair to the citizens who have been here, paying the taxes, paying the electrical fees, which funds a lot of our capital improvements, and suddenly annex them. Even if they have their infrastructure up to standards, the next time they need something repaired we pay for it without them having the history of paying the taxes and fees. We can’t say anyone who wants to come can come. The town will go bankrupt eventually trying to fix everything outside of town.”
The mayor likened the scenario of annexing existing contiguous subdivisions to taking over public roads in town.
“This is very similar to a situation a couple of years ago when we had people requesting the town take over private roads in town. The town went back and actually formalized an ordinance saying that before the town can take over a private road it has to be brought up to town standards. I think a similar policy in the form of an ordinance might be appropriate when it comes to annexation or allowing people to tap into our system,” he said.
Commissioner Brian Stiehler suggested simply requiring a similar policy outside of town when it comes to annexing or tapping into sewer lines, but Commissioner Patterson said the difference is the town has ordinances for in-town scenarios, but no ordinances that apply outside of town.
Furthermore, she said when people inside town want to hook on to town water and/or sewer they pay for the job.
“The difference is when we have people in town who want to get on to the sewer who don’t have sewer right in front of their house, they have to pay for the whole thing going from their house to our sewer lines. We don’t pay for that. So, it would be the same thing. If a subdivision contiguous to town limits that doesn’t have adequate sewer or water wants to be annexed, it would still have to pay for the whole thing, too. If we do that to individuals in town who are citizens, why wouldn’t we do that to a community that wants it?”
The mayor agreed saying homeowners in a subdivision who want to be annexed would need to do all that type of work first.
“We need ordinances in place that explain the steps that have to happen – criteria that has to be met to be annexed. Then when people come to our town planner or Josh and say, we would like to be annexed, we can say here is the town ordinance and here is what you have to do and so forth, so we can work on this in a systematic way and then we can decide whether or not to annex.”
Commissioner Eric Pierson said there would be a lot of requirements before annexation can be considered.
“We can’t just say ‘yeah’ and thereby agree to pay millions of dollars of infrastructure,” he said.
The mayor said there may be some situations where the cost of providing utility services outweighs the benefit of annexing an area.
Even though Highlands is surrounded by a lot of USFS land, which in its nature curtails expansion, Commissioner Patterson brought up the limited nature of Highlands water supply and capability to treat sewage.
“We are on the top. We have a finite water supply. We also have a finite ability to treat sewage. Look at the shape Cashiers is in because it has a lot of development it can’t do anything with. Cashiers is trying to figure out how to make all that work. We don’t want to overload our system – a system that works well,” she said. “We wouldn’t go outside of town except for contiguous annexation, but still there is a certain economy of scale for the up-end and the low-end. We have enough water now, but there have been dry years that have been difficult.”
Public Works Director/Town Engineer Lamar Nix said there is an equation that dictates and helps foresee what is possible concerning water supply and sewage treatment.
“There is a term Federal and State agencies use called 7Q10. This describes the amount of water in a watershed and determines the amount you may withdraw [water] and the amount you may discharge [wastewater]. The Town has enough capacity to supply the town limits and some of the plateau, but not all. The same can be said of the wastewater.”
He said the daily average flow from the water treatment plant and the wastewater treatment plant shows if the town is headed for problems and by design can calculate any future flows from proposed projects.
Commissioners agreed to go to committee to discuss the feasibility of future annexations and to write and adopt ordinances outlining the necessary steps and stipulations before that can happen.
By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper