Thousands of new residents have moved to what was once largely empty industrial land in South End over the past decade, along with breweries, restaurants, dogs, new office buildings – and toilets.
No one knows exactly how many new toilets there are in South End, but it’s easily thousands, at least one for every new apartment and dozens each for the new office buildings, shops and restaurants. All of those toilets have to go somewhere when they flush, and Charlotte Water is scrambling to keep up with the demands and install new pipes to handle the growth.
Growth has come so fast, and to dense areas where installing new pipes takes more time, that Charlotte Water is warning it might not be able to keep up. In a recent memo, the utility said it’s working to add capacity on Fairview Road near SouthPark and around Scaleybark and South Boulevard to deal with recent growth, which has “stressed the sanitary sewer system beyond the design criteria used when it was installed decades ago.”
As growth stretches Charlotte infrastructure, it’s common to hear complaints about growing traffic, the difficulty of funding transit and crowded schools. Less common: The strain on water supplies. The number of annual requests for water capacity assurance from developers has tripled, from 128 in 2012 to 387 last year. And the amount of water they want is up to 5.7 million gallons per day, up from 1.9 million gallons in 2012.
“Everybody wants to be able to flush their toilets and run their washing machines and not have it come up in their backyard,” said Keri Cantrell, Charlotte Water’s engineering planning manager. “You have to keep it flowing.”
Current customers and homeowners won’t lose their water because of new development. But the utility is adding $15 million a year to its annual capital budget, starting in 2019, to pay for more capacity-expanding projects.
That could lead to higher bills for Charlotte Water customers down the line, though spokeswoman Jennifer Frost explained it’s not a straight line from one capacity expansion project to rising bills. Customers pay different amounts based on how much water they consume, and expansion projects are funded in part by fees levied on developers.
But as the system grows, bills could rise in the coming years to help defray the cost.
“Whether rates go up or down is based on the entire long-term financial plan not just specific projects,” said Frost. “However, costs associated with development of specific parcels are recovered through other fees like capacity fees and connection fees.”
Rumors and uncertainty about sewer capacity expansion have been buzzing around Charlotte’s development community in recent months. Before new developments can get off the ground, they need certification from Charlotte Water that they’ll have capacity. While Charlotte Water says some developers might face delays in their construction plans.
For example, Charlotte Water said a proposed 165-foot tall residential tower at Doggett and Hawkins streets from Ram Realty Advisors can’t be hooked up to the sewer until an expanded pipe is installed along Wilmore Drive, expected in summer 2019. The first phase of that project, approved by City Council last year, will cost almost $2 million. But if the sewer project faces delays, the new tower will as well – the kind of uncertainty that gives developers heartburn and can even scuttle a project.
Another developer, Florida-based Icon Residential, withdrew a plan to build 100 townhouses on West Tremont Ave. last year after Charlotte Water said they objected to the plan because of limited sewer capacity. The developer couldn’t be reached for more information about their decision to withdraw the plans.
Tim McCollum, a developer who’s built townhouses in South End, said his current projects aren’t impacted. But he said the uncertainty is enough to make him look elsewhere for future projects.
“The sewer capacity issue is a big deal,” said McCollum, CEO of Revolve Residential. “Going forward, my attention will be in other central neighborhoods other than South End where sewer capacity is readily available.”
Other developers contacted by the Observer said they’re not facing delays because of sewer capacity. Pulte Homes, which is building townhouses near the Scaleybark light rail station, is moving forward without delays, a spokeswoman said. A spokeswman for Lennar Multifamily, building hundreds of apartments at the New Bern light rail station, said the same. Developers Childress Klein, Synco Properties and Zom – together planning more than 1,500 apartments in SouthPark, near Fairview Road, won’t be delayed, a spokesman said.
Enough sewer line to stretch to Anchorage
Charlotte Water operates about 4,300 miles each of water and sewer lines – enough to stretch from Anchorage, Alaska – along with five wastewater treatment plants to clean the dirty water.
When the agency is planning for more capacity, engineers have to consider everything from the slope of sites and the topography of the city (wastewater flows downhill and the system is mostly gravity-fed) to how people use toilets differently in different kinds of buildings (apartments will feature big spikes in the morning and evening and little use during the day, while offices will be more consistent throughout the day).
9,113Estimated South End population, 2016
3,400Estimated South End population, 2009
The areas that are seeing the most explosive growth are also harder for Charlotte Water to build new capacity, because they’re largely close-in sites being redeveloped with new, as opposed to greenfields sites around the edge of town. For example, in South End, Pollack Shores is building 350 apartments on West Tremont Avenue, on the site of former warehouses. That means accommodating hundreds of new sinks, showers, toilets and washing machines with sewer infrastructure that was built to handle a few employees in a warehouse decades ago.
But South End’s boom isn’t new: The Blue Line light rail opened in 2007, drawing a massive surge of developer interest. The boom in SouthPark, one of the quickest-growing parts of Charlotte for decades, also isn’t a surprise.
So why hasn’t Charlotte Water built the capacity to handle all that extra wastewater, if they could see it coming down the pipe?
Cantrell, the planning manager, said it’s not that simple. Although Charlotte Water sees which projects are planned through rezoning requests, they don’t start definitive planning for expansion until developers submit formal plans, since not everything that is rezoned actually gets built.
Cantrell said the utility can’t just go ahead and preemptively put in massive new pipes in high-growth areas, since if they weren’t used – say, if growth crashed like during the latest recession – the expensive new pipes might not have users to fund them for years. That could saddle the whole system with higher bills. And Cantrell said there’s another, earthier reason: Partially filled pipes with stagnant sewage can generate gases that damage the pipe.
“You need a health system. Making it bigger but it not being used is not a good thing,” she said. “What if the bottom drops out of the market tomorrow?”