The Warren County Board of Supervisors debated the merits Tuesday of joining with Frederick County in a regional water service.
Frederick Water Executive Director Eric Lawrence gave a presentation at a Board of Supervisors work session on his agency and the possibility of extending service to northern Warren County.
Frederick Water officials recently broached the idea of extending its services to the area of Fairground Road. Front Royal provides water and sewer service to the U.S. 340-522 North Corridor through an agreement with Warren County.
The concept prompted more questions from supervisors.
Warren County’s Sanitation Authority, established in the 1970s, cannot compete with existing water-sewer providers, Supervisor Tony F. Carter said. The supervisor asked how the county could legally allow Frederick Water to extend its service.
“We don’t want to enter your territory so — ” Lawrence started to say.
Carter said the area, particularly the corridor, is not the county’s territory but that the town provides the service. Lawrence explained that, if the Frederick County Board of Supervisors gives the utility permission to extend service beyond its jurisdiction, then Frederick Water would then need to work with Warren County and Front Royal.
The proposal could present some challenges given the corridor’s boundaries established under the agreement between the town and the county, Carter noted.
“Personally, I think it would be worthwhile to talk with the town or have them in this conversation,” Carter said.
The idea of creating a regional utility service came up in the late 1990s but did not go further, Carter recalled, adding that regional authorities make sense.
“It’s all enclosed and customers are priority no. 1,” Carter said. “Personally, I think it would be worthwhile for the town to even take part in that, ‘cause it takes it off their books, headaches, the whole thing.”
Warren County’s Rockland Park abuts the Shenandoah River — a potential water source should the concept move forward, Carter noted.
“That’s the main thing, like I said, as far as not coming into the town’s area, because I think that’s gonna be a battle all the way around, especially since there’s already an agreement ... ,” Carter said.
Frederick Water would likely serve only residential customers in the area of Warren County if it extends and stops at Fairground Road, Carter said. The topography in the area doesn’t lend itself to industrial development without first making infrastructure improvements such as building bridges, he said. A large swath of land lies in a conservation easement that prohibits development, Carter added.
“It’s a matter of what makes economic sense,” Carter said.
Residential development, which would require increased fire and law enforcement services, should remain in the equation, Carter said.
Chairwoman Cheryl L. Cullers said Front Royal Assistant Town Manager Kathleen Leidich and other representatives were in attendance for the presentation. The county formally invited town officials to attend the work session. Carter suggested that Lawrence give the same presentation to the Town Council. He also noted that the town continues to deal with its aging infrastructure.
The town is working on an expensive water line project for the corridor, Cullers added.
“But (the town’s) infrastructure is what it is,” Cullers said. “That’s not gonna solve the whole problem.”
Supervisor Delores R. Oates agreed with Carter that they should look at the economies-of-scale associated with a possible extension into the county, given the increasing cost of water and the needs for investment in the community to sustain economic development.
“I know that, from a regional perspective, it makes sense to discuss it,” Oates said. “It makes sense to explore it. It makes sense to price it out and evaluate how much savings is there and what’s available.”
Some potential industrial development sites lie to the west of the town in the corridor, Oates said. However, the properties lie within the area outlined in the town-county agreement and parties would need to seek approval from the Commission on Local Government to change the agreement, Carter noted. The town would lose revenue if it gave up those properties, Carter said.
“So I could foresee, if things really went south, that they just launch a hostile annexation (of the area),” Carter said. “Would they win? I don’t know. Somebody’s gonna lose.”
Oates responded: “So I think, Mr. Carter, that we’ve learned one thing through 2020 and 2021 is that working against each other is not the appropriate approach in order to accomplish what’s best for our community.”
Carter agreed but noted that it’s sometimes easier to say it than to do it.
Lawrence presented benefits of a regional water-sewer service, which includes greater efficiency and a cost savings. Lawrence also explained how Frederick Water works. Frederick Water operates independently from the Frederick County Board of Supervisors through a contract arrangement that removes the politics, Lawrence said. Supervisors do appoint the Frederick Water board members and the agency takes guidance through the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
“From our perspective, customers are the ones who fund everything we do, so any decisions that we make ... we cannot incur additional costs to our customers and that’s part of the contractual obligations that we want to enter if we’re gonna extend things,” Lawrence said.
Developers pay for the infrastructure in their projects, Lawrence said. Developers then hand over the infrastructure to Frederick Water. The agency takes over the maintenance of the infrastructure and covers the cost through its rates, he said.
Frederick Water borrowed money for a recent project. However, the agency did not need to raise rates because it reallocated how it spends money, Lawrence explained. Frederick Water adjusted its spending when Winchester raised the amount the city planned to charge the agency over a five-year period by 55%, Lawrence said. Frederick Water then redirected the money to pay for a treatment plant. Ultimately, the utility owns its water source without increasing what it charges its customers, Lawrence said.
“We operate as a business,” Lawrence said. “We have to find the most effective way to run things.”
“I think if we were to partner with anybody down, you know, Clarke County and Warren, it only makes sense to tie the Shenandoah River into the quarry system that we use and maximum the benefits for everybody involved,” Lawrence said.
The utility expects to know in two weeks if the Frederick County supervisors give it permission to extend service outside the jurisdiction, Lawrence said. Frederick County supervisors plan to hold a public hearing on Oct. 27 on a proposal to allow the utility to revise its articles of incorporation.