Sewage facilities a challenge to south Chesco development

Ed Lennex, director of the Oxford Area Sewer Authority, with pipes that will carry treated water to sprinklers for distribution.
Ed Lennex, director of the Oxford Area Sewer Authority, with pipes that will carry treated water to sprinklers for distribution. (ED HILLE / Staff)
Posted: July 02, 2013

The ambitions for what is one of the region's busiest, yet most pastoral, highway corridors are grand, and Chester County officials hope it ultimately becomes irresistible to developers.

But to make anything happen along that stretch of Route 1 in far southern Chester County, officials are dealing with the underlying reality that the road to prosperity begins with the basics - such as the treatment of sewage.

"Clean water is why we have civilization," says Ed Lennex, executive director of the Oxford Area Sewer Authority, which serves four towns in the Oxford area.

The authority's facilities are undergoing a $32 million upgrade to handle what is expected to be an influx of commercial development at the southwestern end of the 17-mile corridor, which extends from Kennett Square to Oxford.

County officials say the project - a particularly sensitive one because the local streams drain into the Chesapeake Bay - is a critical step in the plan they have been working on for several years.

The county Economic Development Council has been commissioned to create a "brand" for the corridor.

Officials have been meeting with town representatives to work out zoning intricacies and identify attractive plots of land. They say they have moved carefully toward a vision that balances agricultural resources to the north against the industrial potential to the south.

But the key is making sure the area has the infrastructure to sustain development on the envisioned scale. In Oxford, a tiny borough just north of the Maryland border, it started with the sewers.

At the sewer authority, Lennex, who has worked in sewage treatment for 25 years, directs a staff of seven. The upgrade began 18 months ago with state grants and a $27 million loan through the federal stimulus package.

"Basically, if you don't have sewer capacity then the only other form of treatment is on-lot disposal," Lennex said. "And the kind of sewage that would be generated - it's just not suited for on-lot disposal."

Instead, the authority fields where treated wastewater can be sprayed on hay crops. Farmers, in turn, can market the hay in exchange for tending the fields.

The authority also has acquired an additional 100 acres and installed a 38.4-million-gallon storage lagoon designed to hold additional wastewater until it can be sprayed on the fields.

"That's three football fields, side by side, buried 28 feet deep," Lennex said.

By December, the authority expects to have a fully operational treatment plant.

Other sewage authorities in the area have made upgrades to accommodate new development, but none on Oxford's scale.

Upgrading infrastructure - especially sewage facilities - is particularly complicated in and around the Route 1 corridor. Streams in the area feed into the Chesapeake Bay, which has strict environmental regulations regarding runoff. As Oxford's sewage authority developed its expansion plan, environmentalists were adamant that it refrain from dumping any sewage - treated or untreated - into streams.

As long as the Oxford expansion conforms with a state-mandated environmental-impact plan, "We're OK with that," said John Theilacker of the Brandywine Conservancy. "But we worry sometimes that the drive for economic development in the region might overshadow the need for planning considerations."

County officials say the plans have been "very carefully negotiated" to assuage concerns about its impact on the environment and agricultural lands just north of the corridor.

"There is a pretty clear understanding that we don"t want to see development encroaching outside the corridor and onto the agricultural land space. That's a very, very high priority," said Ronald Bailey, executive director of the county planning commission.

The county has struggled to find funding to support the kind of growth it wants to encourage, he said. Oxford's sewer system is a bright spot.

"The key now is going to be extending sewer lines to serve specific properties," he said.

A working sewer system can mean all the difference in luring businesses. Several years ago, Lennex said, Lowe's considered opening a distributing plant along the Route 1 corridor, but ended up nixing the plan because the area didn't have an adequate sewer system.

"One of the things that has perhaps retarded development in the corridor up to this point in time is that not all the sites that are designated and zoned for development have infrastructure extended to them," Bailey said.

Lennex said the plant's improvements already allowed the Presbyterian Home, a retirement community, and the local Tastykake factory to begin expansions of their own.

As sewer lines are extended to properties along the corridor, Bailey said, the county can market and develop them.

"It's about looking at utilizing areas of land that are suited, planned, and designated for development, and making sure they're supported with infrastructure to make that development feasible," he said.


Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112, awhelan@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @aubreyjwhelan.

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