By Carol Vaughn —
People speaking at a public hearing the Chincoteague Town Council held Thursday, July 15, to receive comments about how the town should use $2.9 million in federal funds coming through the American Rescue Act Plan urged the council to consider spending funds on central wastewater treatment, more public restrooms, and equipment needed by the volunteer fire company.
Scott Chesson, owner of the Best Western on Chincoteague and a 30-year resident, spoke about “the lethargic action by the town of Chincoteague to address the demonstrated need for a central wastewater treatment plan.”
Chesson said he was asked in 2011 by then-Mayor Jack Tarr to serve on the town’s wastewater advisory committee. The committee’s goals included to complete a study/work plan by June 2013; to review a March 2011 preliminary engineering report for a sewage system and other studies in order to present recommendations for action to the town council; to review and make recommendations about alternatives for wastewater treatment and disposal; to give the council ideas and suggestions for areas to be provided with sewer service; to provide suggestions for properties on which to locate a treatment plant or a pump station; and to serve as a liaison to the public and town council.
“The committee spent countless hours meeting together, visiting other wastewater treatment facilities, and meeting professional engineers in the field of wastewater management,” Chesson said.
He read excerpts from the 2011 plan, including the fact that a sewage treatment plan had been made by Shore Engineering Company back in 1976. The 1976 plan recommended sewage by collected and pumped to a renovated sewage plant at NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the mainland.
“I have heard rumors that the federal government would have paid 95% of the cost of the project — and the town leaders said, ‘No, thank you,’” Chesson said.
Another study, dated April 1998, said the town had identified a need for a central sewer system “for ecological and health reasons.”
The more recent plan, prepared by the committee on which Chesson and others served, said infrastructure improvements “are one of the basic functions of town government.”
“The adoption of the wastewater management plan with recommended actions by town council would be proactive and smart protection from future EPA enforcement action,” and would support future grant applications, according to the plan.
“After countless hours put into this project by intelligent, forward-looking professionals and the expenditure of thousands of taxpayer dollars, the adoption of the wastewater advisory committee recommendations to the town council has never happened. We’ve been waiting eight years for council to do something,” Chesson said.
Still, things are happening in the area of wastewater treatment, he said, noting the Hampton Roads Sanitation District’s recent successful petition in Circuit Court to include Accomack and Northampton counties in its service area.
The request was granted in October 2020.
“Chincoteague Island is now part of this service area,” Chesson said.
He recommended the council establish a new wastewater advisory committee and said “a large portion” of the ARPA funds should be earmarked for “the development of a relationship with the Hampton Roads Sanitation District.”
“It’s time to get moving again,” Chesson said.
Patricia Farley also spoke in support of spending money on wastewater management.
“This is the proverbial can that has been kicked down the road since I first came here 35 years ago,” she said, noting “… It is an inevitable expense that will be forced upon us by health requirements, or we can plan for the future and use this windfall to start the process of developing central sewage.”
Farley cited the town’s 2020 comprehensive plan regarding wastewater, which says the town will “continue studying the feasibility of developing public or private sewage collection and treatment facilities; identify a potential Maddox Boulevard corridor wastewater treatment service area; and encourage the next phase of engineering studies, permit applications, and grant requests to determine its feasibility for operation as a publicly or privately owned wastewater treatment facility similar to the private Sunset Bay utilities.”
Farley also recommended the town use some of the federal money to reimburse itself for lost revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic and also to help out the Chincoteague Center and nonprofit organizations that lost revenue.
Farley also said the town should reinstitute the position of town planner, although she noted that may not be an allowed use of ARPA funds.
Lance Stitcher of Seaside Vacations and Rick Watson also spoke in support of spending funds on wastewater treatment.
Watson spoke about “some of the hurdles I have to go through” related to making improvements to property on Chincoteague. He said when he purchased the building on Main Street that formerly housed Sugarbakers “I knew it had to come down. I also knew that if I were to build it back within five years I could build it back in the current footprint.”
He knew he would have to bring the building up to current flood elevation level, which he called “doable.”
“What I didn’t know was that the health department in Accomack requires a new septic. I can not use the existing septic system,” Watson said.
That requirement will take away space for parking, which the town requires, he said.
“I’ve been told by the septic folks that, a cesspool, there’s two kinds — ones that have failed and ones that are going to fail,” he said.
Chamber Office Needs Public Restrooms
Evelyn Shotwell, Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce executive director, spoke in support of using some of the money to put public restrooms on Maddox Boulevard.
A summer 2019 informal survey of visitors to the chamber office found about 30% asked for restroom facilities.
“They were very frustrated that we as a visitor center did not have public bathrooms,” Shotwell said, noting the distance between the public restrooms on Main Street and the next available public restrooms, on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, is three miles.
“More people are biking and walking now than ever before, thanks to the new bike trail. … Visitation continues to increase,” Shotwell said.
“With close to 10,000 visitors a year coming into the visitor center … our proximity to bike trails, to the bike repair station, and the midway location between the public restrooms on Main Street and the public restrooms on the wildlife refuge, the chamber property would be an ideal location for public restrooms on Maddox Boulevard,” she said.
Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company
Bobby Lappin, Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company fire chief, asked that some of the ARPA money go to the fire company.
Lappin said the fire company had to cancel the carnival and Pony Swim two consecutive years due to the pandemic, resulting in around $500,000 in lost revenue.
The fire company applied for many grants to help make up the loss, but was denied for many, he said.
Despite receiving a state grant to help purchase a new ambulance, the match amount the fire company needs to pay is more than $95,500, Lappin said.
The fire company is asking for money from the ARPA funds to cover that expense and a new air compressor needed to fill firefighters’ self-contained breathing apparatus, which costs $53,750.
Members of the council thanked the fire company for its efforts over the years.
Councilman Jay Savage said the forum “was what we really needed,” noting members of the public showed up and made their recommendations.
Other members echoed the sentiment.
“This is just the first step,” said Mayor J. Arthur Leonard.
As the next step in the process of determining how to spend the federal money, Leonard will appoint a committee made up of council members and citizens “to talk about what was brought up tonight” and bring a report back to the council.
“We’ve got some time to work on this money,” he said, adding, “Stay tuned.”