Business growth threatened by DeKalb sewer problems

DeKalb government has identified five sites that lacks sewer capacity for upcoming projects:

  • Nexus, a mixed-use development in Doraville with apartments, a hotel, offices and retail stores.
  • Toco Hill shopping center project with restaurants, medical offices and retail stores.
  • The Callaway Building in downtown Decatur, which is slated for demolition to make way for commercial and residential.
  • Solis Dresden, a mixed-use project in Brookhaven. Its rezoning application was denied last month, and the site's developer filed suit Tuesday contesting the denial.
  • A former Denny's restaurant in Dunwoody.

Five developers interested in locating businesses in DeKalb County will have to wait, for now, because officials say aging sewer lines can’t handle the additional load.

DeKalb's problems with sewer spills are overflowing into the business community, with officials finding themselves in the unusual position of holding up development in several areas of the county.

Plans to transform a vacancy in the busy Toco Hill shopping center into a sit-down restaurant, medical offices and retail stores hit an unexpected hurdle when a letter arrived from the county saying the sewer system could be a problem.

“Obviously, without sewer, we can’t build,” said Archie Wanamaker, an associate broker for Crim & Associates, which plans to complete its purchase of the LaVista Road property by the end of the year. “The hope is that we can find a resolution and have the ability to continue with our project.”

Four other developments across DeKalb recently received similar letters from the county.

The county sent sewer evaluation letters for proposed mixed use and business developments in Brookhaven, Decatur, Doraville and Dunwoody. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the letters from the county through Georgia's Open Records Act.

If the government and businesses aren’t able to quickly resolve these sewer limitations, potential economic growth and job creation will be delayed.

The county has been under a federal judge's order to upgrade its sewer lines since 2010, but the infrastructure improvements haven't come quickly enough to add needed sewer capacity.

That it’s come to this “is just a colossal failure of communication,” said Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson at a Monday meeting with DeKalb officials. “The county should have been upgrading sewer lines a long time ago.”

It’s unclear whether the sewer issues will delay businesses from opening on schedule. DeKalb officials are meeting with businesses to try to find solutions. The county’s code currently requires that sewer upgrade costs be paid by the businesses rather than the government.

No business has been turned away. Projects can move forward if the businesses pay for improvements to the waste water collection system, officials say.

The Toco Hill property will propose installing septic tanks that would hold wastewater that could be discharged during off-peak hours, minimizing the risk of overburdening sewer lines, Wanamaker said. If approved, the tenants could move in on schedule next June.

The county also sent a letter this month about the proposed Nexus mixed-use development in Doraville, which would put apartments, a hotel, offices and retail space where a Kmart once sat. For that property, the developer could install a $50,000 lift station that would push sewage uphill to a larger basin that can handle the flow, said Luke Howe, Doraville's economic development director.

The developer, Stephen Macauley of Macauley Investments, didn’t return a phone message.

“The timing is what worries me. I’m confident that we’ll work through it. But in the meantime, we’ve already got users lined up for Nexus,” Howe said.

The county government will meet with each new business that presents a problem for county’s sewer system because of the size of the project and the sewer system’s limitations, said DeKalb Chief Operating Officer Zach Williams.

“It forces everyone to the table to see how we can work together to address their capacity constraints,” he said. “In certain areas, we have reached capacity thresholds that require us to address them in order for us to allow development to move forward.”

Though businesses and the county government may be able to find temporary fixes, permanent solutions will take time, and more businesses could receive sewer alert letters.

The county will continue to assess its sewer limitations, clean sediment build-up to add capacity and eventually replace infrastructure as needed.

“It’s a big deal,” said Commissioner Nancy Jester. “The urgency is we have to deploy the resources necessary to regain capacity. We cannot just let people and development wither on the vine because we’re not addressing these issues very quickly.”

DeKalb has been trying to reduce sewer spills for years, and it recently acknowledged under-reporting them.

The county government said it failed to report 35 out of 555 total sewer spills over the last four years. DeKalb could face fines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.