Before they’re even up and operating, a growing number of restaurants, stores and apartments that want to locate in DeKalb are getting an abrupt introduction to the county’s intractable sewer system problems.
The full scope of the problem remains unclear, but the county government has identified 11 proposed development sites that have potential sewer capacity limitations. More than 60 other projects are still being evaluated to determine whether the sewer system can take on the increased load, according to government documents.
DeKalb officials say they’re working to prevent any delays to construction plans. In some cases, developers may have to bear the cost of sewer upgrades in locations where the county hadn’t previously proposed improvements.
DeKalb’s aging sewer lines have been prone to break and overflow in recent years, and a federal court order prevents the county from risking additional strain on its most vulnerable sewer lines. The county is in the middle of a $1.35 billion sewer repair project.
Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May said the county is working with developers to find solutions that don’t hold up their business plans.
“We’re open for business,” May said. “We want to lower their anxiety in order to be able to do development in DeKalb County. While there are challenges in certain areas, as a whole in DeKalb County, we have the capacity to do major deals.”
So far, sewer capacity problems are greatest in areas of the county where the most business growth has occurred in recent years, creating new stresses on the sewer system. The lack of sewer capacity may affect new developments proposed in the cities of Brookhaven, Chamblee, Decatur, Doraville and Tucker.
At one Chamblee site, where Project Interconnections wants to build 35 apartments for veterans, the added cost of sewer fixes could be a significant financial hurdle to overcome, said Darlene Schultz, CEO of the nonprofit, which provides permanent supportive housing for the homeless and mentally ill.
“If we’re going to tear down anything in DeKalb County and put in more units that are desperately needed for the homeless, this is going to be an issue,” she said. “I’m hoping we can overcome it, but it would come at a huge cost to the project.”
The sewer problems aren’t posing an immediate threat to the project, called Villages at Dresden, because the company is still raising money and seeking tax credits to pay for construction, she said. Project Interconnections must also confront sewer limitations before it can refurbish 56 existing units at Rosalynn Apartments.
Solutions will vary depending on the size and needs of each project. Possibilities include installing holding tanks to store and then pump sewage during off-peak hours; on-site water re-use systems; and small treatment plants that process waste for reuse to irrigate golf courses.
“We don’t want to stop development just because we have a preliminary model showing capacity constraints,” Margaret Tanner, deputy director for the DeKalb Department of Watershed Management, said during a meeting with county commissioners. “We’re talking with the developers weekly about what they can do and what we can do to move forward.”
But Bill Floyd, who represents several city governments as managing director for the DeKalb Municipal Association, said the county should have repaired its sewer systems a long time ago, and now developers may look to build elsewhere.
“Businesses that were thinking of doing something in DeKalb County might now be saying, ‘We’re going to Gwinnett or Cobb or somewhere else that’s not having this problem,’” Floyd said. “The county is already behind the eight-ball in development. We should have talked about this two or three years ago.”
DeKalb’s sewer problems have been decades in the making, and some of them may be resolved by something as simple as cleaning out sewer lines where sediment has built up over time.
The DeKalb Commission recently approved spending $1.3 million to evaluate trunk lines.
“The sky is not really falling,” said Commissioner Larry Johnson.”We will find a way because we don’t want to turn down businesses looking to come into our area.”
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