Commisioners Corner Blog

May 19

[ARCHIVED] Town Growth, Infrastructure, and Taxes

The original item was published from May 19, 2016 4:49 PM to May 26, 2016 10:39 PM

In the past year, we have heard a lot of questions from residents about new homes being built in town and the future growth of Poolesville. Twice recently I personally heard conversations relating to growth, taxes and infrastructure that were simply based on bad information and incorrect assumptions about how things actually work in Poolesville. These discussions motivated me to write a blog that attempts to explain the facts about how things actually work with regards to growth, new home construction, taxes and infrastructure in Poolesville.

How is Town growth managed?

The Town Master Plan is the guiding document for how Poolesville will evolve over time. As the document states: “The Plan is a reflection of the Town’s efforts to help the community achieve its full potential, as outlined by the overall vision of the Plan, and is the instrument that enables residents, businesses, and property owners to develop and implement a vision for how the community is to look and function in the future. “

The Master Plan is reviewed and revised every six years in accordance with State Law. The Planning Commission initiates the process through surveys, focus groups and public meetings. Once the Planning Commission is satisfied with the Draft Plan, it is forwarded to the Commissioners for final approval and adoption.

Once again, the Plan is a guiding document. It is not a hard-and-fast set of rules that cannot be adapted as market conditions or opportunities change. However, The Town of Poolesville tends to give much more credence to its master plan than many other local governments and municipalities. The Plan is frequently referenced by the Planning Commission, and the Parks and Streets Board, as well as by the Commissioners along with the Town Manager, town staff, and others within Town.

One thing that the master plan clearly specifies is an upper limit on town population/growth. Over the years, various master plans had set that upper limit at over 12,000 people, but it was steadily lowered over time. In the current Master Plan, which was approved in 2011, the cap was placed at 6,500 residents. Our actual population today is about 5,400 people, which is up moderately from the population of 4,883 in the 2010 census.

Why is there so much new development occurring?

Each of the new home developments that has been completed in the past few years (Stony Springs and Brightwell Crossing), as well as the ones in construction or in advanced planning stages (Wooten Woods townhomes, Russell Branch, Brightwell Reserve, Westerly Seven) have been in the planning stages for close to 10 years, if not longer. The recession in 2008 slowed down most of these or put them completely on hold. There has not been a brand new development formally proposed to Town in quite some time.

What benefits do we receive from more new homes?

There are many reasons why the Master Plan and Town Government encourages controlled, incremental growth. A few specific reasons that I will touch on here relate to local business prosperity, infrastructure, and taxes.

The business community in town will grow and prosper with a larger town population. From an economic development standpoint, we have reached out to and/or worked with a number of our local businesses as requested by citizens in surveys and focus groups (restaurants, shopping alternatives, grocery stores, etc.)

While we have had some success in attracting new businesses, a common response we get from businesses that consider coming to town is that while they love Poolesville and our residents, there simply is not enough population to support their business in the long run. For example, the overriding reason that we have been unable to attract a new grocery store to town since Selby’s Market closed is the fact that we don’t have the critical mass that is generally needed. This recurring theme is best summed up by this quote from a grocery store representative who recently looked at Poolesville: … the lack of total population is a significant challenge. A store could be a great asset to Poolesville....until it goes broke !”

In addition to supporting the business community, growth helps pay for the infrastructure and services that support all of our town residents. Without the steady and managed addition of new homes, property taxes will have to increase substantially on existing homeowners in order to service existing debt and to pay for maintenance of the aging town infrastructure. In the context of this discussion, when we talk about infrastructure we are almost exclusively referring to the town’s water and sewer system, including the Waste Water Treatment Plant.

It should be noted that adding more homes or more subdivisions in town at this point does not significantly impact our infrastructure costs. The same infrastructure that was built long ago to support Hunter’s Run, Tama, Brightwell Crossing, Stony Springs, etc. is sufficient to support the much smaller number of new homes currently being built or proposed for the future. For example, the addition of Stony Springs did not cause any increased capital spending on our water and sewer system infrastructure. Any additional operating costs due to water and sewer usage from Stony Springs was covered by the water fees and property taxes paid by those residents in Stony Springs.

Are my property taxes funding new home development in town?

All new developments pay for their own infrastructure including connections to town water and sewer systems. New construction, be it residential or commercial, requires payment of significant fees to both to the County and the Town. These fees are typically referred to as impact fees or connection fees. The fees that the Town of Poolesville collects are specifically allocated by law to fund infrastructure needs, which include debt service for the infrastructure that allowed those new developments to occur in the first place.

Also, most larger subdivisions, such as Brightwell Crossing and Stony Springs, are required to provide and pay for new wells to support the shared water system that supports all town residents. Smaller subdivisions also pay fees to support these new wells.

Once a new subdivision is complete, the responsibility for the maintenance of its infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, parks, water, sewer, etc.) passes to the Town. For this reason, Town staff, including the Town engineer, ensures that all infrastructure development meets strict construction and inspection requirements prior to being turned over to the town.

What debts does the Town owe and how are they paid for?

The Town has three outstanding loans in relation to its water and sewer infrastructure. One loan is related to the town’s Waster Water Treatment Plant (WWTP) and the other two loans are related to Inflow and Infiltration (I&I) remediation. The repayment of these loans constitutes the Town’s outstanding debt service.

The Town’s sewage treatment plant was originally built in 1984. The plant was upgraded in 2004 to handle additional capacity and to meet new MDE/EPA requirements. The plant was upgraded in 2010 to meet statewide EPA/MDE requirements for Enhanced Nutrient Removal (ENR), which are primarily driven by efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay. The 2004 upgrade is being paid for through a 20-year, $1,250,000 loan.

Poolesville, like most other municipalities in various parts of Maryland and the U.S., has ongoing problems with Inflow and Infiltration (I&I). I&I occurs when cracked, deteriorating damaged sewer pipes take in rain water. During heavy rain events, large quantities of rainwater infiltrate through the ground and into cracks in the sewer pipes. So much so that the downstream pumping stations or even the WWTP itself become overwhelmed creating the potential for back-ups onto private properties.

The worst I&I problems in Poolesville arise in the older areas of town that were built mainly in the 1960s through 1970s. The construction materials and practices used at that time, coupled with the geology in Poolesville, lead to our worst I&I problems. While I&I issues can occur in some of the newer areas of town (I&I is a constant issue with any sewer system), their impact will be significantly lower due to the modern construction materials and construction practices.

To date, the Town has undertaken two highly successfully I&I remediation projects in the older areas of town. In 2007, an I&I remediation project was funded in the Wesmond subdivision using a 20-year loan of $1,440,000. In 2013, an I&I remediation project was funded in the Westerly subdivision using a 20-year loan of $2,297,978. It should be noted that prior to the original Wesmond project and a more recent follow-on project in Wesmond, several residents did have sewage back up into their homes. Prior to the recent project in Westerly, numerous residents in Westerly came very close to having sewage back up into their homes on more than one occasion.

Fees to town from new home developments pay for significant portions of the outstanding loans. Without a slow but steady supply of these fees from new development, the debt service payments will have to be shifted more and more to property taxes resulting in reduced services and amenities to residents and substantially higher property taxes.

How is our aging infrastructure being addressed?

There are other I&I issues that must be resolved -- primarily relating to older infrastructure in Town, including but not limited to Fisher Ave, Elgin Road/109, and other 1960-1970 era construction. Also, as the waste water treatment plant ages and the associated valves, pumping stations and piping located through town age, they too need to be upgraded and replaced.

These upgrades and replacements represent large capital expenditures that need to be paid for in the near future. The Fiscal Year 2017 Town of Poolesville budget has begun to fund these future needs without taking on more debt. However, the fees received from additional new development will be critical to fully funding these needs without additional significant tax increases or reductions in services to residents.

I have tried to write about facts as opposed to giving my own opinions on matters related to the future of Poolesville. For the latter, please contact me directly. I strongly encourage residents to ask questions and get involved with Town government. After all, this is our community and I know all of us want the best for Poolesville, today and into the future. The last thing we need is to perpetuate incorrect information and outdated facts.

Please check out these areas of the Town Website for more information on how to Get Involved and how to Contact Us with any questions or comments. We want to hear from all of you out there.