Easing fears that DeKalb’s old sewer system would inhibit business growth, county officials are approving an increasing number of planned townhomes, restaurants and shops.
Seventeen developments were allowed to go forward this month after the county concluded they wouldn’t increase the risk of sewage spills, according to government records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under Georgia’s Open Records Act.
The county authorized some projects only after developers submitted plans to prevent sewage spills by building underground holding tanks and pumping stations. Other developments won’t have to take any action because the sewer system can already handle the load.
The green light for new development indicates that concerns about DeKalb’s aging infrastructure may not have been as severe as first thought when the county sent warning letters to businesses in August. The recent approvals come after a medical building and townhome community were given the go-ahead last month.
Dozens more construction projects are still being reviewed by county officials. Businesses will be responsible for the costs of holding tank systems.
For developers, the county’s action is a relief, said Thad Higgins, a land planning manager for Taylor Morrison, which won approval for three townhome projects.
“It seemed like it would be a big issue for us. We had hundreds of millions invested in DeKalb County, and to see a big roadblock like this sewer issue was a shock,” Higgins said. “We’ve gotten more comfortable now with moving forward and keeping our investments active.”
About half of the approved developments will have to store sewage in underground tanks and then release into the county’s system when there’s little danger of an overflow that could pollute public waterways. The rest won’t have to make any accommodations because they’ll produce less sewage than existing structures.
“While we can no longer issue unconditional approvals for sewer access, it doesn’t mean we can’t find creative solutions working in partnership with the development community,” said DeKalb Department of Watershed Management Director Scott Towler in a statement. “These projects demonstrate that DeKalb County remains open for business.”
A federal court order requires DeKalb to reduce its number of sewer spills as it spends $1.35 billion to upgrade treatment plants, water mains and pipes.
The potential for DeKalb’s sewer limitations to affect business development arose this summer when the county mailed letters to five businesses notifying them that the county couldn’t take on more waste.
The county later rescinded those letters after finding that its new computer model that measures sewer capacity wasn’t always accurate. New developments are now being evaluated one at a time. The county hasn’t rejected any projects based on sewer capacity constraints, and many are working with the county on mitigation plans.
Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson, who has criticized DeKalb for failing to plan ahead on sewer issues, said he’s gaining confidence that county officials can deal with its infrastructure problems.
“We’re being told that the county is not going to hold up any developments moving forward” if projects accommodate sewer constraints, Clarkson said. “It’s not ideal. It creates some challenges for sure. I’ve heard some developers are planning for the worst and hoping for the best.”
The approved developments are located in Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, Chamblee, Lithonia and unincorporated areas near Toco Hill.
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