Board OKs 100 percent engineering for sewer project

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By David  Dewitt


The Athens County Commissioners on Thursday authorized the final stage of design work on a proposed sewer-extension project in the Athens-to-Albany corridor southwest of the city. The approval carries the stipulation that in order for the project to move forward, it must remain affordable to impacted homeowners.

So far the project is 60 percent designed, and HDR Engineering, the Omaha, Nebraska-based firm conducting design work on the project, has estimated that the average sewer bill for homeowners tapping into the system will be about $68 per month.

The minimum monthly bill, based on 1,000 gallons of water usage in a month, will be $51, according to HDR. HDR has said the $68 figure is based on usage of 150 gallons per day.

That average bill is not expected to change much as the final 40 percent of design work is completed, but if it rises beyond perceived affordability, the commissioners have said they will not go forward with the project.

That would be significant at this point because the county will have invested several million dollars into the project to finalize the designs by that point. After design completion, the project will go out to bid, which will have a big impact on affordability, Commissioner Lenny Eliason noted during the board’s vote.

When Commissioner Chris Chmiel moved to approve the final design stage of the project, he emphasized the necessity of it remaining affordable.

And Commissioner Charlie Adkins noted that his vote to complete design work was not a final vote on the project overall.

The vote to finish design passed unanimously.

The project has been approved to receive $14.3 million of funding in the form of a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and another $14.5 million in funding from the USDA as a 40-year loan with 2 percent interest.

The sewer expansion is proposed for residential subdivisions and other homes and businesses in the U.S. Rt. 50/Ohio Rt. 32 corridor extending southwest from Athens toward Albany. Some spurs extending from that corridor also would be included. The expansion would tie into the city of Athens sewer treatment plant.

Affordability for customers has been a top priority of the commissioners, and so the nearly 50/50 grant/loan split from the USDA came as good news, as the board had been anticipating something more like a 40/60 grant-loan offer.

Also on Thursday, the commissioners voted to enter into a contract with local lawyer Frank Lavelle to ask as counsel on the project. In addition to providing ongoing legal advice on the project, Lavelle will work to secure a number of construction easements from property owners to allow the sewer system to be gravity-based as much as possible.

The commissioners toured the project area Wednesday with maps from HDR to see how construction would play out and the impact on properties in the project area.

The board discovered a handful of homes that were not included in the project because the foundations of the homes are more than 200 feet away from the proposed sewer line. This is why the home of Charlie Adkins’ late father Tommy, who once served as a commissioner as well, was not included in the project.

The commissioners have decided to send letters to the owners of these properties – which they estimated to be around six total – to allow them to opt into sewer connection if they wish.

HDR confirmed that the timeline for the project remains the same now that the final stage of design work is going forward. This includes final design and easement acquisition throughout 2018, construction bidding for the project in spring 2019, construction from the summer of 2019 through the summer of 2021, and completion by the end of 2021.

The commissioners are also looking into what lending programs are available for property owners who might need help paying for septic abandonment and connection to the new sewer line, which has been estimated to cost between $1,500 and $4,000 depending on the property and the length of the connection line.

The project has been on the county’s radar for over 20 years, after the Ohio EPA sent a notice in 1995 detailing environmental concerns related to the use of septic-tank systems in rural residential areas southwest of the city of Athens.

The Athens City-County Health Department has called failing septic systems in that area, and other parts of the county, one of the biggest public-health issues facing the county. Since 1995, the county Commissioners have been moving by fits and starts toward a plan to install a sanitary sewer collection system.