Willisville Still Waiting for Indoor Plumbing

Only a handful of homes in Willisville have indoor plumbing. Others, such as Emma Howard's, above, still are reliant on outhouses.
Only a handful of homes in Willisville have indoor plumbing. Others, such as Emma Howard's, above, still are reliant on outhouses. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006

In the shabby crossroads of Willisville, not far from Middleburg, work was finally supposed to have begun by now to deliver to 11 modest properties what most residents of affluent Loudoun County have taken for granted for decades: running water and flushing toilets.

It hasn't.

Yet another delay and another cost overrun have placed the project's goal of a December completion in jeopardy. And that has left residents of Willisville doing what they've done since 1999, when the county first promised water and sewer service. They are hoping, but they are not holding their breaths.

"We'll be happy when it's done," said Carol Lee, 51, who is among the handful of Willisville residents with a well and septic tank -- but whose mother, Anne, lives across the street with neither.

Behind Anne Lee's house stands an outhouse. Like most of her neighbors, she has a slop bucket in her kitchen and a chamber pot in her bedroom for middle-of-the-night relief. It's been the way of life since Willisville was founded just after the Civil War, when freed slave Heuson Willis bought a cabin on three acres for $100.

The lack of water and good septic systems is an accident of the poor quality of the land and the limited means of its owners but also stems from the pride of residents who have preferred to live without than to give up their homes.

The conditions have been an embarrassment to elected officials in Loudoun, which the U.S. Census Bureau recently placed at the top in a national ranking of counties by median household income. Officials are keenly aware of how close Willisville's sagging porches and soggy yards are to million-dollar homes.

They also openly admit that the county is responsible for the design delays, bureaucratic hurdles and government neglect that caused the Willisville project to founder for seven years -- factors that have more than tripled its initial estimated cost of $250,000.

"This project was a mess for whatever reason," said Supervisor Jim G. Burton (I-Blue Ridge), who has pressed most vocally this year to keep the project on track. "Promises were made in the late '90s, and for some reason those promises were never fulfilled."

The latest delay and cost overruns have been particularly wearying for Willisville and the county because they have come after a renewed promise earlier this year by the Board of Supervisors to finally finish the project.

County Administrator Kirby M. Bowers assigned a senior assistant, Paul L. Brown, to manage the project directly. Brown has held monthly community meetings all year to keep residents updated. He established a firm schedule: Bid documents were to be ready in April; bidders' responses would return in May; construction would start in June; and the flushing party could be scheduled just in time for the holidays.

But on the day bids were to be opened, there were none. Willisville was such a small project, and the risk of expensive complications so high, not a single contractor wanted the job.

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