Harbor View Faces Crisis Over Sewage

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

No sidewalks line the streets, no yellow lines separate the lanes of traffic and no through-trucks rumble through quiet Harbor View, a 40-year-old neighborhood of 175 houses tucked away on Mason Neck in southeastern Fairfax County.

Residents like their world exactly as it is -- which is why more than 100 of them crowded into a meeting with county officials late last month to figure out what to do with the community's aging sewage system. Of primary consideration was how to avoid sending a dozen trucks through Harbor View each day to transport their sewage to a county treatment plant.

"What's at stake for us is the safety of our children," said Jason Nelson, 35, a federal contractor who lives in Harbor View with his wife and two young sons. "This is really what this is about. Our streets have a number of very small children who ride their bikes, their skateboards or walk their dogs. Thirty large trucks a day cannot stop on a dime. The question was asked at the hearing: 'When the first child is killed, whom do we call?' "

Other issues are in play as well. One of hundreds of aging neighborhoods across Fairfax County with failing infrastructure, Harbor View is the only such community with a privately run sewage treatment plant. To upgrade the system would cost millions -- and could cause the plant's owner, Utilities Inc., to charge households as much as $200 for service each month.

Since the late 1970s, Fairfax County has been subsidizing Harbor View's sewage bills so residents pay about $20 a month -- no more than the typical household connected to the county system. But Utilities Inc. is seeking higher rates than the county is willing to pay, meaning more could fall to homeowners.

At the request of residents, the county's public works staff and Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) have studied ways to avoid the charges. One option is for the county to purchase, upgrade and operate the treatment plant; another is to connect Harbor View to the county's nearby treatment plant along Route 1; and a third is to install holding tanks in Harbor View and truck the community's wastewater out each day.

County officials say purchasing and upgrading the system would cost as much as $4 million, plus annual operating fees. Residents across Mason Neck, meanwhile, are uneasy about connecting Harbor View to county sewers because that would open nearby tracts of undisturbed land to development. Mason Neck's residents are protective of their abundant natural resources, which include the Potomac and Occoquan rivers, Massey Creek, Belmont Bay and three large parks, including Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for the area's population of bald eagles.

That leaves option No.3 -- trucking the sewage out. County officials figure that would be the cheapest. But residents are compiling spreadsheets that they say will show that the cost would not be as low as county officials say, and they have shown that a county estimate of the annual cost of taking over the private treatment facility is inaccurately high (the county estimated $600,000 per year). County engineers agree.

"Where we started was that the pump-and-haul option was almost half the cost of operating the plant itself," Hyland said. "Now, it looks like the difference is negligible. So, given community opposition, we can make a much better case to operate the plant ourselves if we can acquire it."

The Board of Supervisors discussed the matter in executive session Monday but took no action. Earlier, discussing the eventual outcome, Hyland said, "I'm optimistic."

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