Developers face a stink in DeKalb


Related coverage:

ExploreBusinesses look to DeKalb to expand and add jobs
ExploreVideo of a DeKalb sewage overflow

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Keeping hot areas of DeKalb booming might require steps no chamber of commerce wants to advertise.

Picture new holding tanks full of sewage on new developments from Brookhaven to Chamblee, Doraville and Dunwoody.

Except that the leaders of one metro Atlanta’s biggest counties aren’t clear on whether even that will be enough to avoid stalling growth.

ExploreThe county recently sent letters to developers of five proposed projects, saying the sewer system can’t currently handle their additional connections.

Which doesn’t sound good for Brand DeKalb.

“We don’t want to be a county that is labeled like that,” said Yvonne Williams, CEO of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts that represents some business property owners.

Especially not when money to build is flowing for projects in portions of DeKalb’s aging suburbia.

Eric Clarkson, mayor of Chamblee, is agitated on this sewer thing.

It could push businesses elsewhere, he said. “There are lots of areas that can be developed in metro Atlanta right now.”

Clarkson sent a letter to DeKalb asking for information on the extent of the problems. “A continued message of this kind to the public and developers without real information about the current capacities of the system will do irreparable damage to future growth in DeKalb.”

The county isn’t saying how widespread the problems are other than that a preliminary model pinpoints “various locations throughout the county generally, but not limited to, more densely urbanized areas.”

Helpful, right?

It’s safe to assume more projects will be hit.

County officials have previously said developers might be able to undertake extraordinary work – which, I assume, will be expensive and time-consuming — to get their toilets to flush. One possibility mentioned is erecting holding tanks to store yucky stuff until times of the day when the sewer system isn't overloaded.

UPDATE: County documents now show 11 proposed developments now face potential sewer capacity limitations. And more than 60 other projects are being evaluated for potential sewer issues.

The bottom line

Local governments talk a lot about trying to attract employers and commerce.

They also give a lot. Dunwoody officials, for instance, are considering a $48.6 million tax break as a lure for State Farm and developers — even though the insurance giant decided more than two years ago to build a campus there. More focus on the basics of Number 1 and Number 2 would be better.

Because the bottom line on bottom lines is that you can’t attract jobs and employers if you can’t flush toilets.

Real estate runs in waves. If development doesn’t start in an upcycle, the window can close for a long time.

“It’s a very big deal,” county commissioner Nancy Jester said of DeKalb’s capacity crunch. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”

It's nuts that DeKalb is in this mess after years of being under a judge's order to fix its leaking, wheezing sewer system.

The watershed department has new leaders this year, so they aren’t to blame for the delays. But we do need more transparency from them.

Some of DeKalb’s sewer problems sound like symptoms of a poorly maintained system: leaks that allow rainwater in and sediment that built up in pipes over years. But apparently the issue is also that some of the pipes just aren’t big enough.

Blame the cities?

DeKalb commissioner Jeff Rader puts some blame on local cities.

To hear him tell it, city leaders’ willy-nilly property rezonings let developers squeeze in more homes, businesses and offices without regard to whether sewer lines could handle it.

(That set off Clarkson, Chamblee’s mayor. “Jeff needs to pull his head out of his (butt) and just do his job and not try to blame it on other people,” he said. Clarkson also said the county has been notified about changes by the cities.)

Rader told me he suspects that other suburban counties will face similar pains as they undergo substantial redevelopments. And one of the biggest issues will be who ends up paying for needed upgrades: developers or existing water and sewer customers.

Meantime, some big projects in DeKalb may be hurt, Rader said. But he predicts the issues will be “scattered” rather than widespread. Most developers will have options to solve the issue, though he’s not sure if they’ll make financial sense.

“We don’t want anyone to go away,” he said.