Wastewater agreement reached in Briar Chapel

by Casey Mann, Senior Correspondent

The Briar Chapel Community Association announced it had reached an agreement with Newland, the development company that built Briar Chapel and Old North State Water Company which currently owns and operates the community’s wastewater treatment system.

The agreement outlines several items that the Community Association announcement said was in the “best interests” of both the association and the community while ending the “year-long, costly battle over regionalization of the Briar Chapel wastewater treatment system.”

Residents of the Briar Chapel Community have raised alarms about failures in the sewage treatment system for nearly two years, resulting in raw sewage spills and foul odors for some residents. According to the N.C. Dept. Of Environmental Quality (DEQ), since 2016 the community’s wastewater system has officially logged more than two dozen sewer overflows, sending more than 35,000 gallons of untreated sewage into the community.

At the same time, Old North State Water Company was seeking approval from the N.C. Utilities Commission to connect the Briar Chapel wastewater treatment system to the Fearrington Village wastewater treatment system, which is owned by Fitch Creations, Inc. d/ b/ a/ Fearrington Utilities as a proposed part of a regional solution to wastewater needs in the area. 

During public hearings before the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) about the request, some residents began collaborating to oppose the proposed connection while demanding improvements to the community’s system. A group of these residents called themselves Stop Chatham North.

The situation seems to have come to a head as Newland is seeking final approval for two final plats in the Briar Chapel community. During the Chatham County Board of Commissioners meeting on Oct. 19, all four groups – the Briar Chapel Community Association, Newland, Old North State Water Company, and Stop Chatham North – were provided the opportunity to present their case to the board.

The next day, the Briar Chapel Community Association announced the agreement between the developer, the system owner and the association. The agreement includes timelines for specific improvements and, in exchange, the community association agreed to support Newland’s final plat approval request. Stop Chatham North was not a party in the agreement.

Highlights of the agreement:

  • Within sixty (60) days, restore irrigation to the sports courts and replant trees and shrubs
  • Old North State Water Company will install in the next year a bypass line for the current forcemain line that has suffered repetitive breaks over the past few years
  • The capacity for the  wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) will be increased from 250,000 gallons per day to 500,000 gallons per day to support the final build-out of Briar Chapel
  • And both Old North State Water Company and Newland agree to submit bonds to Chatham County, sufficient to cover the costs of these improvement
  • Old North State Water Company agrees to withdraw its application with the NCUC  to connect with Fearrington within seven days and agrees not to file a similar application in the future

The agreement also creates a “Tri-Party” council of representatives from each of the organizations which will work together to solve wastewater issues as well as others that may affect the community. The council will include representatives of each of the organizations including the caveat that if the wastewater system were to be sold, the new owner would also need to comply with the arrangement.

The announcement by the Briar Chapel Community Association was accompanied by a letter from Hope Derby Carmichael, the attorney for the Briar Chapel Community Association, to the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. The stated purpose of the letter was to “correct any misimpressions” from the Oct. 19 board meeting, calling out Stop Chatham North’s attorney Dwight Allen for “near slanderous statements” and intimations that the community association is in the “hip pocket of the developer.”

The letter outlined the association’s relationship, as representative of the 2,500 current residents, to act “in the best interests” of the community, while not having the authority to file “nuisance claims or other civil damages” on behalf of individual homeowners. And while Stop Chatham North has received the support of about one-quarter of its residents, according to a Stop Chatham North petition, it lacks the legal authority to represent those residents as well. The letter from Carmichael asserts that since the group has never formally organized by filing legal paperwork with the State and/or County stipulating an organizational structure, it was a “movement” rather than an official organization that can legally be a party to an agreement.

The letter goes on to say that while the association was upset about Allen’s “vitriolic attack” against the association and its board members, the association has “consistently praised and thanked” individuals associated with Stop Chatham North, acknowledging not only the success of the group’s advocacy in preventing the connection to the Fearrington system, but for “laying the groundwork” for the creation of the Tri-Party Council.

Liz Rolison of Stop Chatham North said that while there are positives in the agreement, such as the withdrawal from the connection to Fearringon and enforceable timelines for improvements, there was nothing in the agreement about odors from the plant. In addition, there are no restrictions on what other wastewater systems and/or communities that Newland or Old North State Water company may want to add to the system in the future. Rolison also noted that the agreement does not note any resident participation on the Tri-Party counsel.

At its Oct. 19 meeting, the Board of Commissioners decided to table the discussion on Newland’s final plat approval as it awaited documentation of agreements and paperwork as well as the opportunity for the County Attorney to connect with all parties. That discussion is expected to return to the county board of commissioners during one of its meetings in November.