BOILING SPRING LAKES — Last month, untreated wastewater bubbled out from a malfunctioning septic tank, out onto Elm Street in Boiling Spring Lakes and into a nearby creek, according to a neighbor who reported the spill to authorities.
The septic tank had been smelling for weeks prior and children were playing in the street in the wastewater when it eventually reached the road, the neighbor claimed.
But according to the property owner, the water that appeared to have originated from a disturbed septic tank and shovels actually came from an emptied swimming pool.
When the Brunswick County Health Department arrived on site the day after the neighbor first reported the incident, officials could not find any sewage, according to the county. They did find soil disturbance at the end of the drain lines. The health department requested that the homeowners establish vegetation over the disturbed area to prevent erosion and install barriers to prevent vehicular traffic over the area so as not to damage the structure underground.
Of the 168 unresolved septic system violation or complaint cases open countywide, 12 are in Boiling Spring Lakes, according to the county.
Brunswick County Commissioner Mike Forte, who lives in Boiling Spring Lakes and previously served as a Boiling Spring Lakes City Commissioner from 2011 to 2015, said septic system replacements are an everyday occurrence in the city.
“Every day, you’ll see septic systems being dug up and replaced,” He said at a May 4 county meeting. “And they’re costly.”
Forte estimates septic replacements cost about $15,000. The lifespan of a tank is about 20 years, with full-system pumping required every three to five years. Pumping costing between $300 to $800 per session, depending on the size of the tank.
The effort to get Boiling Spring Lakes residents on a citywide sewer system has been nearly a decade in the making. In 2010, the city traded its water system to the county in exchange for the county installing a public wastewater line down Highway 87.
The trade was necessary in part due to septic issues at the county’s public schools, South Brunswick Middle and High School, both located off Highway 87. Since then, the city adopted a special assessment district (SAD) in 2018 to help fund an expanded system east of the highway, between Fifty Lakes Road and Cougar Road.
Three-fourths of the lots in the Fifty Lakes SAD are managed by the same company developing Audubon Park, a major 601-unit subdivision that could not have been developed without access to a public sewer system. Property owners within the SAD are being assessed 1,100 annually over a three-year period, enough to pay back to city in full, which fronted the $460,000 cost to install the infrastructure to the county.
Earlier this month, consultants wrapped up a sewer master plan study that gives city officials and the county, which operates the public wastewater system in the city, a roadmap of how to plan future expansions. It also came with a steep estimated price tag: $49,824,000.
A citywide expansion could possibly be funded via an enterprise system, requesting property owners with septic systems to instead pay the cost to tap into the new public system. This system may cost a few thousand dollars per property owner, eventually repaying the full cost of the citywide system.
But the exact funding mechanisms have not yet been worked out. “It is a blueprint for the city. Funding is another question,” William Pinnex, the county’s director of engineering, said at the county meeting.
County Public Utilities Director John Nichols said failing septic systems were one impetus for developing the city’s sewer master plan. It was also brought about due to a growing number of requests from developers.
“When you’re getting those types of requests, you want to make sure that the infrastructure that you direct the developer [to install]— who may be only interested in a small segment — will work as the system grows,” Nichols told Commissioners at the May 4 meeting.
Aside from conservation concerns regarding endangered red-cockaded woodpecker that lives in the city, the lack of a citywide sewer system is perhaps the biggest roadblock to development in the county’s largest municipality by land area.
Hundreds if not thousands of undeveloped lots have sat empty for decades, all because the land won’t perk. “I call it little New Orleans. Because it’s like a bowl. It just holds water,” City Commissioner Steve Barger explained.
Because the water table is high in many areas of the city, the soil and sand stay saturated, Barger said. Saturated soils don’t allow for proper effluent drainage, rendering many areas of the city essentially undevelopable. “It’s no secret that we have a water table flooding issue. And there’s large parts of our city that do not perk because of that,” Barger said.
Boiling Spring Lakes is growing — just not as quickly as its neighbors. Between 2010 and 2018, the city’s population increased by 14.2%, according to the Census, compared to Oak Island’s 18.6% growth rate, Southport’s $35% growth rate, and the county’s overall 27.3% growth rate over the same time frame. An estimated 7,200 people live in Boiling Spring Lakes today.
The expansion would provide sewer to 9,500 lots, the study found.
Barger said implementing a citywide sewer system would save money for property owners in the long run, requiring less money upfront than the cost to replace an aging system. It would also increase property values, which in turn, increase city revenues, which could increase the city’s ability to provide services. “I am all for city-wide sewer.”
Like Barger, Forte owns lots in the city that he said he can’t use without sewer. “Without sewer, it’s useless. It’s a piece of wooded land,” he said at the county meeting.
Forte urged Commissioners and staff to seriously consider implementing the expansion and wondered if the health concerns related to failing septic systems create a sense of urgency.
“I realize the cost of this project is $50 million, I get it. That’s a boatload of money. But if ever there was a project that was needed, this is one I think is desperately needed. Boiling Spring Lakes has the potential to expand threefold, minimum. I think this project could in time easily pay for itself,” he said at the meeting.
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