PENDER COUNTY — Water capacity is dangerously close to maxing out for current and future residents in the Hampstead and Scotts Hill area, and Pender County is struggling to find an adequate location to build a new plant.
The latest battle of a recently purchased parcel forced commissioners to choose between the board of education and utilities, unanimously siding with the need for a new school.
At its Sept. 6 meeting, Pender County Board of Commissioners voted to deny using 182 acres along U.S. 17 for the construction of a reverse osmosis plant, elevated water tank and additional wells needed by the utilities department. It would increase capacity to reach a rough estimate of an additional 25,000 ro 42,000 residents.
It was a last-ditch effort by public utilities director Kenny Keel to find a location to construct a facility for the eastern side of the county, as grant funding is jeopardized the longer a site is not identified.
A report was compiled in 2019 to address the growing needs of the county’s infrastructure and officials have been searching for an appropriate location since to no avail. The most ideal spot would be a very small fraction of the Holly Shelter Game Lands, owned by the state, but former chair David Piepmeyer said he was told no three times.
The existing surface water treatment plant is on the western side of the county and pumps water to the eastern service area through one 12-inch transmission line that extends 19 miles. Keel said this system is inadequate since the pump is working 24/7. During peak summer weekends, with tourists in town, capacity reaches “pretty close to the limit” of what it can deliver, already serving about 25,000 people.
“A couple years ago, we ran out and emptied the tanks,” Keel said. “We quickly installed two wells in the Hampstead area to provide additional supply.”
Overall, the entire Pender County water system can serve 3.7 million gallons per day from four different sources: a surface water plant on Highway 421, a connection from the Town of Wallace and two wells in Hampstead.
“As a whole system we’re only using about 2 million gallons per day,” Keel said. “The problem is, about half that usage — over half — is along the U.S. 17 corridor.”
He added capacity is the problem more so than distribution.
Who should get the property?
A reverse osmosis plant was decided as the best path forward by commissioners three years ago. It’s needed for the eastern side of the county to carry the population — 61,800, growing at an annual rate of 1.3% — through another 20 to 40 years. The project would include 27,700 linear feet of 20-inch diameter waterline to supply more water to Rocky Point.
Keel requested use of land along U.S. 17, purchased by the county earlier in the year, as a possible site for a new school if the $173-million school bond passes this November. He said he was under the impression the site was not suitable for the board of education’s needs, and the location would be sufficient for the new $80-million utility plant.
Before Keel had the ability to finish his presentation to commissioners Sept. 6, Piepmeyer interrupted him: “That’s exactly right. It was purchased, 173 acres, with the intention of building new schools … It’s my understanding the schools would still like to use this piece of property because I don’t think they have an alternate piece property on their scope.”
Board of education chair Brad George approached the podium and said it wasn’t desirable due to wetlands that would need remediation. Yet, it’s the only available location for the school currently.
“We never said we didn’t want it,” George clarified.
The county is under negotiations to buy another parcel “better suited” to handle a new school, but nothing has been finalized.
“Without property in hand, we’re going for a bond and have nowhere to put the school,” George added.
Commissioners all agreed schools were a number-one priority and the land had to retain its intended use, unless other property was purchased to take its place.
“If we don’t have another source of water for this area, there’s no point in building any new schools,” Keel said later in the meeting. “We will have to stop all new growth; we’re dangerously close to that now.”
Keel explained the new RO plant — to supply 3 million gallons per day, expandable to 5 million in the future — and associated structures would require approximately 200 acres.
The state owns more than 48,000 acres at Holly Shelter Game Lands in Pender County, which Piepmeyer said he’s approached the N.C Wildlife Resource Commission multiple times about purchasing or having a portion donated.
“I’ve requested less than half a percentage, 200 acres, and they told me no — three times,” he said at the meeting.
The state commission turned down his request as to not endanger habitat, such as the red-headed woodpecker.
“For the life of me, water is more important to people than it is for the woodpecker,” Piepmeyer said. “He can fly to the other 48,000 acres next to it.”
Funding in jeopardy
When the county first received a $23.75 grant from the N.C. Division of Water Infrastructure in 2019 toward the construction of an RO plant, it was given an initial deadline of two years ago to acquire a site and perform the necessary engineering work. Keel said he has requested delays twice now, with the end of this year being the new deadline.
“I’ve been told we’ve still got a little flexibility to push it back, but I don’t see it being pushed back more than say March or April,” he explained to commissioners.
It also will take six months to do the required engineering assessment.
The county will vote on applying for another $20-million NCDWI grant — which has two cycles of funding per year — on Monday at the next commissioners meeting. Keel said other funding sources require a site and engineering report before they can be sought.
Estimated costs to construct the RO plant, which would take at least four years to build, were originally slated to be $14 million less than running parallel pipes along N.C. 210. This proposed solution would source water from the existing plant on the western side of the county.
According to the project proposal, “the additional piping needed for the RO plant at this site does make the project closer to each other in cost, but the RO plant option is still better and eliminates the unknowns of what level of GenX /PFAS treatment will become necessary at [the} existing water plant.”
The Rocky Point-Topsail Water and Sewer District would reimburse the county for any property purchase cost after the start of construction.
The possibility of sharing the land was discussed, as the actual plant itself only requires 15 to 20 acres.
“I don’t think it can be for both,” Keel said of using the property for a dual purpose; however, he noted the 15 wells to supply the RO plant could theoretically be installed in another location. But it would be an added cost to run pipes farther.
The costs would outweigh having all the necessary utility equipment on one site, Keel explained. More so, it would create maintenance issues, with crews having to visit multiple sites.
In the meantime, the county will install an elevated tank and three additional wells, construction starting in October, to provide a temporary fix. The tank and one well will be built beside Pender Fire Station 18; another is slated for Hampstead, next to Topsail High School; and a third will be installed at South Topsail Elementary School off Hoover Road.
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