Private well users protected

Published 11:25 am Wednesday, November 15, 2017

County can’t require them to tap onto system

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

Following a discussion by the Board of Supervisors last month on mandatory water line hookups, county staff learned that only the state can regulate private wells.

Utility Services Director Don Jennings was contacted by the Virginia Water Well Association, which provided that information and indicated that wells are under the Virginia Department of Health’s jurisdiction.

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To make connections to county water lines mandatory, Isle of Wight would need to request special legislation from the state to add it to a list of authorized localities, according to Jennings, or to create utility service districts.

The International Plumbing Code dictates that a private well may only be installed if a public water supply is not available, according to Jennings. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The problem with that is how to enforce it, said Isle of Wight County Administrator Randy Keaton.

Jennings brought the county’s mandatory connection ordinance to the Board’s attention last month in an effort to obtain some direction for how the county should proceed with it. A new water line slated to extend from Benn’s Grant to Suffolk on Route 10 would run past 45 parcels, raising the question of whether to require the property owners to connect with the system, per the existing ordinance, according to Jennings.

The county, which has one of the highest water rates in the region, has been on a mission to gain more water customers and increase water consumption in order to balance out its utility division and bring down its high water costs. It’s currently using only a fraction of the water it is paying for annually and lost over $3 million last year in its utilities division.

At a work session Wednesday, Nov. 1, however, supervisors generally agreed they were reluctant to require residents to connect to waterlines that are deemed available.

“I just think it’s not right to make somebody abandon their well … just because we came along with a water line,” said Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree.

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice agreed that a property owner with an existing well should not be forced to connect to county water, but said that when the property changes hands, the connection should be mandatory.

Randy Keaton has advocated “the carrot versus the stick” approach to gaining water customers, and the Board directed staff to begin working on more incentive proposals for residents to hook up to county water lines.

An existing incentive in the county’s code is that customers who connect within 90 days of being notified of a water line’s availability can have the connection fee slashed by half and go on a two-year payment plan with 8 percent interest.

Jennings has suggested that the discount can be applied to everyone, not just those who sign up within 90 days.

The current connection fee is $4,000.

According to the county’s ordinance, which has some “gray area,” water lines are deemed “available” when the county declares them to be available, Jennings said.

There are 13,989 private wells in Isle of Wight County, according to Jennings.

One option the Board could go with would be to set a date in the future where residents would have to switch over to county water, Jennings said.

Board Chairman Rex Alphin said there are some well owners who want the opportunity to connect to the county’s water system, but he understands that there are also many who do not.

“They want autonomy that goes with living in an area like that,” Alphin said of private well owners in the more rural areas of the county.

Newport District Supervisor William McCarty asked if there was any documentation about the ages of private wells in the county. Jennings said he would have to contact the Virginia Department of Health, which regulates the wells.

A Suffolk Health Department spokesman said that the department does not track the age of wells, but does keep record of all of the accepted permits.

VDH spokesperson Larry Hill said that private wells do not have a set lifespan.

Grice pointed out that the county is in a bind with its current water system and needs to find a way out by adding more customers eventually, which was why he advocated mandatory connections when property titles are transferred.  {/mprestriction}