Column – Sewer line opened the floodgates for IW growth

Published 5:44 pm Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Isle of Wight’s residential growth didn’t begin with a sewer line through Carrollton. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District line just made growth far more tempting for government and profitable for developers.

New houses had been springing up in the county for years when the HRSD connection was made, but at much lower numbers. In 1970, there were only 18,000 residents in the entire county. By 1990, when the HRSD debate was underway, the county had added another 7,000 people. 

That growth was largely limited to farms where land was suitable for septic tank use. Such development required relatively large lots so that the underground waste treatment systems would work.

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But the county and developers were chafing at the bit for bigger, more dense development, and in the mid-1980s developers were presenting plans for package treatment plants. These small on-site systems were designed to treat waste for a pre-planned number of houses in a single development.

In theory, package plants could efficiently treat wastewater to state standards, and the plans presented came with assurances that the developer, or a homeowners’ association, would operate them. 

In reality, counties that accepted package plants generally found that, after a few years, it was the locality that ended up managing the systems, and generally at considerable taxpayer cost. It was often one more public cost of housing growth.

The likelihood of an HRSD line to Smithfield put an end to most package treatment plant schemes in the northern end of the county. 

Meanwhile, Isle of Wight was anticipating a sewage resolution and was actively planning for growth. In 1989, the county undertook a major rewrite of its comprehensive plan. It hired a group known as Redman Associates to draft a new plan that designated three growth districts — Carrollton, Windsor and Carrsville.

Redman, undoubtedly responding to county wishes, created the latest in a long line of county-town confrontations. The county had asked Smithfield to extend its sewage collection lines to the planned Gatling Pointe subdivision on Battery Park Road. The town agreed and, in 1988, the county and town formalized a pact that would make town sewage collection available outside of town limits.

Once the town had an agreement that allowed its sewage line to extended into the county, Isle of Wight took steps to ensure that the town couldn’t use its sewage system to expand business near the town boundaries, businesses that might then be annexed by the town. Redman drew a “green belt” around Smithfield that would have prevented most development within that area. The “belt” plan was fiercely opposed and ultimately rejected, but the three growth areas remained, and it was pretty clear that the northern one would be the hottest, because by then, the HRSD line was being negotiated and would be built.

Not without controversy, however. 

As soon as Smithfield Foods signed a pact to underwrite much of the up-front construction cost of the line, the county, Foods and HRSD began negotiating details, including the route that the line was to take. 

Some prominent landowners and prospective developers wanted the line to come into the county via Carrollton Boulevard and Brewers Neck, thus opening Carrollton to development.

Others wanted HRSD to bring its line up Route 10 through Chuckatuck. Among them was Windsor Supervisor Steven W. Edwards. He lobbied then and later for a line to Windsor to encourage industrial, rather than residential, development, and he favored the Chuckatuck line to Smithfield, feeling it would be less likely to precipitate an uncontrolled explosion of growth in Carrollton.

By a 3-2 vote, the Board of Supervisors ultimately approved the route most likely to promote residential growth — the one through Carrollton. Quotes from supervisors and Planning Commission members back then assured the county they would control what was coming.

Not everyone thought that would be the case. There were calls for a development moratorium while the county took a good look at what would be reasonable. Those naysayers were quickly turned aside as the county welcomed the future.

Ironically, the negotiations that led to the HRSD line construction included the packing plants, Isle of Wight County, the county’s Public Service Authority and HRSD. Conspicuously absent were Smithfield town officials. The town had not supported construction of the line and was still hoping to continue operating its relatively new wastewater plant, for which it had borrowed heavily and still owed millions of dollars.

In the end, though, Smithfield had no choice but to connect to the regional line and voted in March 1992 to accept HRSD treatment of town waste.

Town Council member Henry Hearn said bluntly, “We’re forced into hooking on” by the Water Control Board.  

The town’s acquiescence provided the final piece in the collection puzzle. The original goal of cleaning up the Pagan River became a rarely mentioned benefit. From then on, the topic would be growth, and the line from north Suffolk to Smithfield would provide plenty of it.

Next week: But what of the Pagan? Is it better off now that treated wastewater is no longer discharged into it?

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is