The biggest backup most of us are likely to encounter in our bathroom is easily remedied with a 99-cent plunger or a bottle of drain cleaner and five minutes of our time. But imagine being a builder whose new subdivision, school, or store can’t open on time, simply because the required paperwork is clogged up in the state’s wastewater permit approval process in Raleigh.
It’s a scenario Brunswick County Health Department Program Specialist Bruce Withrow understands firsthand. He’s been caught in the middle between frustrated developers and state engineers when permitting delays have occurred on some wastewater systems being built in areas of the county not already serviced by existing public systems. In these instances, state-level approval is required before the projects can move forward, and the impact can reach well into the community.
According to a story August 2000 in the Wilmington Morning Star, a charter school in the area was forced to delay its opening by several months and rent space in a church because of the red tape involved in securing its water permit.
“Yes, there’s sometimes a problem,” Withrow said. He believes it’s a clear case of the state not employing enough engineers to handle the workload in the Raleigh office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Only two engineers are available to handle his projects, he said. “A lot of people don’t realize there are other things they do,” he said of the delays. “They do the whole state.”
Lack of staffing is more rhetoric than reality when it comes to pinning down permit delays, said Lisa Martin, director of regulatory affairs for the North Carolina Homebuilders Association. “There are other state departments that are understaffed and they don’t use that excuse,” Martin said. “It’s more a culture problem. There’s no inclination for DENR to be service-oriented.”
Martin may have a point. After initially agreeing to address the permit delay complaints and confirm for Carolina Journal the number of engineers who provide service to Withrow and other county representatives, DENR spokeswoman Johanna Reese did not provide the information and failed to respond to a second request.
Smaller builders may face greater risk when delays occur, Martin said. While she said she believes that some wastewater regulation is needed when dealing with human waste, the wait while negotiating the paperwork maze can damage a project’s financial support when investor funds and land are forced to sit idle. “Every day land isn’t being produced, you’re doing nothing with it,” she said.
Smaller projects, however, are usually insulated from delays, Withrow said. He has the authority to approve new systems that meet the technical specification of small: less than 3,000 gallons of water flow. That size typically serves seven or eight average-size homes.
The headaches begin when a builder needs approval for a new wastewater system having a flow greater than 3,000 gallons. It’s not that the regulations for the larger projects are more complicated, Withrow said, but that there isn’t enough engineering expertise in Raleigh — expertise that’s required to ensure the larger systems are sound.
“Once you reach that level, you have pumps involved and get into different mathematical calculations. A lot of times you need somebody who really, really knows what they’re doing,” he said. “It just takes longer to get a review and turnaround.”
Even with delays, Withrow said he thinks Brunswick County has received “a lot of bang for our buck” from DENR engineers, particularly since they’re also responsible for inspections of existing systems with problems such as sewer spills after heavy rainfall. Getting an engineer from Raleigh can take months unless Withrow has a severe, immediate problem. “If I’ve got sewage on the ground, I can get them here. Otherwise, it’s very difficult,” Withrow said.
The waits are equally tough for the builder who’s left watching valuable construction days evaporate. But some are figuring out their own solution. Withrow said the 3,000-gallon dilemma has led some builders to design new wastewater systems using 2,999 gallons or less, just to avoid Raleigh involvement altogether. That results in multiple wastewater systems for one project. Since regulations require 20 feet between each system, Withrow explained, the larger separation area eats up valuable space and money, especially in desirable beach areas. Ultimately, a developer’s creativity becomes Withrow’s burden. Multiple systems must be inspected more frequently, and with their numbers growing, the county is left with more work.
To Withrow, solving both the permitting and inspection delay problems isn’t rocket science. “Add more engineers,” he advised.
Martinez is associate editor of Carolina Journal.