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Wastewater War: How sewage space turned to secret meetings, namecalling and a battle for control in Union County

Tempers were flaring and no feelings were being spared.
The fight started because of a discussion on extending water and sewer lines.
Updated: May. 12, 2022 at 5:30 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The temperature of the room reached a boiling point in the Union County Government Center. Tempers were flaring and no feelings were being spared.

“Dennis is a useful idiot at times, but at the end of the day he’s an idiot,” Commissioner Stony Rushing said about Board Chair Dennis Rape during a budget hearing on April 11.

Rape went to defend himself after another Commissioner tried calming things down.

“Call me a useful idiot with all the ethical and moral bridges you have burned, that’s sad,” Rape retorted.

Mecklenburg County using wastewater to track the spread of COVID-19

The back and forth between the commissioners was caused by a bizarre situation and accusations about guns and FFl’s that are not worth much more exploration.

The fight started because of a discussion on extending water and sewer lines. Commissioner Stony Rushing claimed openly during the meeting that the projects and ordinances didn’t pass his smell test and he was calling for a criminal investigation.

“I’m not going to pursue it anymore with you yahoos. I’m going to call the FBI and talk to them about it,” Rushing said.

WBTV first reported on wastewater capacity issues in July 2021 and things have only gotten more contentious since between politicians, staff, developers and anyone else trying to figure out the future of Union County, one of the fastest-growing areas in North Carolina.

In 2021, County Commissioners placed a halt on issuing permits for new developments in most areas in Western Union County. Two wastewater jurisdictions and their facilities, 12-mile and Crooked Creek, were nearing their permitted capacity and commissioners wanted to slow things down to figure out a solution first.

Nearly one year later the cap has been removed by there is no consensus has been reached on a solution, much to the dismay of towns relying on the county for their wastewater needs.

“They need to address it now,” Stallings Mayor Wyatt Dunn said. “I mean it’s, way past due.”

Dunn spoke to WBTV about the latest and greatest development for Stallings, Atrium Union West.

Dunn said he made sure the hospital put his town’s name on the sign to make sure people knew where they were as they quickly blew past the tiny town on the 74 bypass.

Dunn is hoping that in the near future there will be extra incentives for people to exit the highway with restaurants, hotels and other attractions built up around the hospital.

Dunn said the same plan exists for Stallings town hall area. He’s just not sure there’s the sewage infrastructure to support these projects.

“We understand that there’s a limited amount of capacity of water and sewer for our area and so that’s what we’re concerned about,” Dunn said.

The hospital is in the Crooked Creek jurisdiction, which surrounds a strip of 74 as it enters Union County from the west. Union County reports the area is only at 46% capacity but if you include projects that are permitted but not yet completed, the capacity is 82%.

In a statement, a Union County spokesperson wrote “We cannot say whether there will or will not be capacity for ancillary projects surrounding Atrium Union West. There is available capacity today.”

The 12 Mile Creek jurisdiction, which covers some of Weddington and Waxhaw, is even more built out with flows at 75% capacity but including permitted projects is at 97.7%.

Union County is currently in the process of taking bids and deign plans to expand 12 Mile’s capacity from 7.5 MGD (million gallons per day) to 9 MGD to keep up with demand. But construction for that doesn’t begin until 2023 and no one is using their crystal ball right now to guess whether the project will be seen through.

That’s because local government decisions on wastewater projects have taken a turn toward the unusual over the past year, including year-long battles to just approve an easement for a sewer line.

In 2021, the Town of Waxhaw approached Union County Public Schools about getting an easement for a sewer line for their planned town hall near Kennsington Elementary.

In a bizarre, and potentially unlawful move, the UCPS Facilities Committee held a closed session discussion on Waxhaw’s request. WBTV spoke with several government officials and experts for this story, and none said they can remember a debate over an easement, especially one between two public bodies, going into closed session.

The Facilities Committee claimed the closed session was for attorney-client privilege but state statute does not include provisions for discussions of granting easements.

The Facilities Director and UCPS General Counsel have not responded to WBTV’s emails asking for details of the meeting and a recording of the proceedings.

The committee denied the easement.

Waxhaw then pursued a pump station, since their new facility still needed sewer hookup but couldn’t rely on an easement.

That led to a new rule requiring Union County Commissioners to approve all new requests for a pump station They allowed Waxhaw’s but denied three others. Developers WBTV spoke with said it’s one of the more bizarre decisions they have seen regarding wastewater decisions.

One year after their secret meeting, the facilities committee voted in favor of giving Waxhaw the easement for the sewer line.

All of this comes down to growth and construction and whether county governments can actually control it.

“Why weren’t we thinking about this ten years ago or 15 years ago?” Dunn told WBTV.

“Union County has been one of the fastest-growing counties in the whole country for a long period of time. And so why, why weren’t our county commissioners thinking about that then?”

WBTV reached out to Commissioner Stony Rushing, who’s the leader of the opposition to growth, for an interview but he has not responded. Rushing previously told WBTV he’s concerned building a new facility would cost ratepayers.

Dunn told WBTV he’s proud of the tax cuts he’s passed while Mayor of Stallings, but expanding wastewater capacity is critical.

Union County told WBTV it is still approving permits in areas it’s monitoring for capacity issues.

“All development projects that have been permitted have the capacity to serve the project. There are some development projects that have completed the review process but cannot be permitted due to utility capital project constraints. These development projects are set aside and are waiting for permitting when the utility capital project is complete (Poplin EQ tank project or the Crooked Creek interceptor project).”

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