By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News
The chair of the Sullivan’s Island Council’s Water & Sewer Committee and homeowners who live near one of five soon-to-be-operational lift stations concur that the system which carries sewage to the town’s newly-renovated treatment plant was overdue for a serious upgrade. They agree on little else about the $3.7 million project. Lift station 3 towers above the marsh at the end of Station 18, between homes owned by Paul Vanita and Brent Havens. Their frustration with the town stems from a variety of issues ranging from the fencing around the lift station to the height of a platform designed to hold a generator they say is unnecessary to the town’s decision not to involve the Architectural Review Board in the project. The situation grew a little more contentious when the contractor placed the wet well 11 feet from where it was supposed to be, requiring the platform to be moved 12 to 15 feet to the north, “adding insult to injury,” according to Havens, and further blocking the view of the marsh from both homes. “There’s no doubt the system needed to be upgraded, but it could have been done so much more aesthetically,” said Havens, who has lived 1746 Thompson for the past 35 years. “We believe the ARB and an architect should have been involved.”
“We want to engage the ARB to fix this as best they can,” Vanita, who moved into his home at 1802 Back St. four years ago, added. “We’re trying to get the ARB back into this.” Both homeowners claimed they had only a week to look at the original plans for the lift stations, which they say created a footprint seven times larger than that of the brick building that for decades housed lift station 3 and operated without an on-site backup generator.
They really have nothing to complain about, according to Council Member Bachman Smith, who heads the Water & Sewer Committee. He said the plans were available to the public for much longer than a week and that it’s not unusual to exclude the ARB from a sewage system project. “This is critical infrastructure – just like we didn’t consult the ARB on the treatment plant,” he said. Smith pointed out that the original plans called for the 8-foot-high fence to encircle the entire lift station, including the platform and force main, and leaving enough space for trucks used to provide necessary maintenance. He said when residents complained about the station’s large footprint, the town agreed to erect the fence only around the platform. He added that the town took residents near lift station 3 into consideration when it chose not to install a large Systems for Electrical Distribution (SCADA) pole there, choosing instead to go with an antenna on the platform to communicate with the treatment facility. Havens and Vanita suggested that if each lift station didn’t have its own permanent generator, the large platforms – which protect against flooding – would be unnecessary. With the current system, if electrical services are interrupted, generators housed at the treatment plant are towed to the lift stations on trailers. Havens said in the 35 years he’s lived in his house, the generators have been necessary only twice. “We’re not building this for two or three residents. We’re building this for everyone on the island. To provide basic services, we need backup power at these lift stations,” Smith explained. “Critical infrastructure that is to benefit every resident on the island and allows us to deliver basic needs for everyone needs to be the primary concern and should not take a back seat to aesthetic concerns of a small handful of residents who live next to these structures.” At this point, Havens said he would be happy with a fence high enough to conceal the platform and possibly some landscaping around the entire project. Neither option appears likely.
“A 14-foot-high fence cannot be made out of the good-looking material they want it to be made out of. It must be durable and maintenance-free,” Smith said. “The plan was to use the same fencing as at the old water plant – a shadowbox fence made out of cypress. You can’t do that at 14 feet.” Smith said the town’s plan is to finish the contract as it stands, and “once we have the contractor off the island and the project is completed, we will then, based on safety and to some extent resident concerns, revisit our fencing.” He added that it’s equally unlikely that the town will landscape the area around lift station 3. “We’re not planning on it,” he said. “We don’t allow people to plant in rights of way, and we don’t either. If you don’t like what it looks like, plant a tree in your own yard and obscure it.” Havens and Vanita, meanwhile, remain unimpressed with the response from their town government, claiming that “the Water & Sewer Committee was very authoritative and unreasonable as far as listening to residents.” They said they simply don’t trust the Council to help them out. “We don’t believe they’re going to fix it,” Vanita said. “They’re lightly promising they’re going to revisit the fence and make the aesthetics better, but we don’t trust that.” Smith said he can see the situation from the viewpoint of the homeowners.
“I feel their pain,” he said. “If I lived in one of those houses, I’d be upset without a doubt. I’d be complaining and trying to do all the things I could to lessen the impact.”