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Developers urge Franklinton: Find water ... soon!

FRANKLINTON -- Developers have asked town officials to put a little heat under the county's efforts to allocate water.

In July 2017, Franklin County adopted an ordinance that more prudently outlined how they would allocate water for residential and business development.

The guideline was put in place after a summer 2016 water and sewer study revealed that about 90 percent of the county's water supply was either being used or had already been allocated.

This past November, the county agreed to hire Southern Pines-based MBD Consulting Engineers to perform a water supply study for the county, with a goal of helping the county get more access to the much-needed resource.

In the meantime, the county's Utility Advisory Committee has recommended, and Franklin County Commissioners have been approving, developments at roughly 50 units a year.

Most recently, though, developers say their developments, which have gotten favorable recommendations, have hit a bottleneck when it comes to actual approvals -- creating hardships for them that are beginning to mount in the millions of dollars.

During the most recent meeting of the Franklinton Board of Commissioners, two developers petitioned Franklinton leaders to help them urge county commissioners to move a bit faster.

Jay Gilleece, a consulting engineer with the group behind a planned 250-acre development along E. Mason Street, said they are trying to procure water for their development.

Gilleece said in the past, when he was an engineer with Cary, the town passed a $20 million bond issue to procure the resources they needed for growth.

"I'm not suggesting you pass a bond," Gilleece told Franklinton commissioners during their June 16 meeting,

"but I am suggesting if there is any way for y'all to ... be in charge of your own water and sewer, it's unlimited what your destiny can be."

The town did operate its own utilities until it sold the system to Franklin County in the spring of 2015 after a five-year-long civic and legal battle.

In 2010, Franklin County was the town's largest customer but a summer drought prompted the town to stop selling water to Franklin County.

The county filed a civil lawsuit, arguing that the decision to shut them off violated the 40-year contract between the two entities.

Following two years of negotiations and legal wrangling, a judge determined that the original contract between the two lacked a pre-audit, making it void and invalid.

Franklin County continued buying water from Henderson at a lesser rate than it got from Franklinton. And Franklinton lost its largest customer -- and about $60,000 a month.

The lost revenue, and a nasty state treasurer's office letter pointing out serious financial and operational problems as a result, the town raised its utility rates, which also raised the ire of residents -- who convinced town commissioners to sell.

Still, Gilleece said any help the town can provide to help secure allocation for their development would be appreciated.

"As soon as the rooftops come in, as soon as the houses come in ... you're going to get the high-end shopping centers, the food stores, you'll start getting more business," he said.

"If there's anything you can do to help solve the water and sewer problem ... it would certainly help us move forward."

Bob Polanco agreed.

Polanco is the development manager of the Essex mixed-use project, a 125-acre home and business development project on the edge of Franklinton running toward U.S. 1.

Two new projects, he has said, would bring the total residential lot count to 294 and include a 41-acre lot fronting U.S. 1 for commercial use.

In April, Polanco appeared before Franklin County commissioners during the public comment portion of their meeting, informing the board that they are on the brink of millions of dollars worth of grading work and installing a sewer pump station, however, lags in water allocations has chilled their commitment to move forward.

What's worse, he said, is that he hasn't gotten any solid answers from county staff or officials regarding water allocations for the project.

"... We asked [the county] for 100 water allocations; 50 for each [side of the development]," Polanco told Franklinton commissioners during their June 16 meeting. "We got 18.

"... We're continuing with our planning, but, I don't know that anyone is going to pull the trigger to spend the big money and get the big machines moving out there until such a time as we know what kind of water we got out there.

"... Right now, we're just spinning our wheels," Polanco said. "Any help we can get from you all is greatly appreciated."

Developer Michael Hurt, who didn't have a project in a similar situation, still empathized with Gilleece and Polanco.

"I do think it's imperative that Franklin County resolve the water allocation in Franklin County and conduct itself with the urgency it deserves," Hurt said.

"We've got to continue the momentum that we have in our community for economic growth and development and commerce and employment in our communities."

Hurt also said he understands the hurdles.

"We get our water from Kerr Lake in Henderson ... so, they control the tap," he said. "That's where it begins and ends."

The county does have other resources, including the town of Louisburg.

And, County Commissioner Cedric Jones, whose district covers Franklinton and happened to be at the meeting, said the county has not dropped the ball in its efforts to procure more water.

"The water situation, as you know, is one of our biggest concerns in Franklin County," Jones said. "As you also may know, we have commissioned a water study ... to determine where we can best get more water from ... that process is almost complete, now."

It was not exactly clear when that study would be revealed to the public, but it could happen next month, officials said.

Jones said he understands the county's water allocation system can be frustratingly slow, but he asked developers to remain patient.

"... We know it's been a long process. We understand that," Jones said. "But, we want to make sure we get it right.

"So, if you can bear with us for a little while, we'll try to make sure we get those situations under control."

Franklinton commissioners asked its town manager to arrange to have county representatives at the next board meeting to provide more specifics on the county's plans to procure more water.

"We want to do the right thing for the right people at the right time," Jones said of the county's process. "We are working on it.

"We are not sitting on this."

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