Proposed change to benefit assessments could help break rural infrastructure logjam, PGM believes

With the attention of the Board of Charles County Commissioners on Tuesday focused primarily on the surprise last-minute withdrawal of the House agritourism bill the day before its first hearing, a proposed code change went by relatively unnoticed that, if approved, could potentially have a comparable impact on rural development.

The proposed change to Article II of Chapter 97 of the county code alters the way rural homeowners pay their share of the cost of the county taking over a private water, sewer, or stormwater management system. Currently, the code requires homeowners participating in so-called “petition projects” to completely pay off the remaining portion of their share before their home can be sold — an amount that can sometimes reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.

“That often presents a significant financial hardship for the homeowner,” Department of Planning and Growth Management director Deborah Carpenter told the county commissioners. “When that homeowner wants to transfer, the entirety of the amount right now has to be paid before they can finish the sale. … That cost … sometimes will prohibit homeowners from selling their home early in [the repayment] process.”

Instead, Carpenter explained, PGM is proposing that homeowners be allowed to pass along the unpaid portion to buyers when selling their homes, provided they are up to date with their annual payments at the time of sale. That way, homeowners are not forced to postpone selling their homes until they’ve paid down their share to a manageable level.

The Charles County government has the option of taking over the management of failing water, sewer, and stormwater management systems when 51% of the residents on that system petition the county to do so. If the county agrees to assume the cost of operating the system — and perhaps also of connecting the system to the county’s own infrastructure, or of constructing an entirely new system — the county then levies benefit assessments on the affected property owners to pay for it, amortized over a 30-year period.

Carpenter explained that in Charles County, private infrastructure systems that are prime candidates for the county to assume responsibility for their maintenance and operation mostly date back to the 1950s and 1960s and are “burdened by [the] immense cost” of maintaining them.

“The average cost per household is $20[,000] to $25,000, and if somebody is in their retirement years and they’re looking to move on, that significantly eats into their nest egg and they’re not bearing the benefit of that improvement that we did for them,” Carpenter explained.

Acting PGM deputy director Jessica Andritz told TLR that she anticipates the number of petitions submitted to the county will increase as existing private infrastructure ages.

“Right now, it’s specifically aimed at assisting the homeowners that are currently bound by a petition,” Andritz said of the proposed code change. “But I could see the benefit of these changes for Charles County homeowners in the future.”

“This is one of the things that the County can do to make home ownership more affordable,” Andritz added. “And on top of that, [it is] a way of having older citizens being able to remain in their homes. All of these things help.”

Andritz pointed to one community in particular, centered on Jenkins Lane in Bryans Road, that stands to benefit from the proposed change. In 2010, a majority of 45 residents of Jenkins Lane and neighboring Hungerford Road and Thomas Court petitioned the county to construct water mains and fire hydrants and install related equipment such as meters and house connections to replace the existing private well water supply system. At the time the county commissioners approved the project, the work was estimated to cost nearly $774,000, or $17,000 per parcel spread over 15 years (as the amortization period was defined then).

However, work on the project was delayed for several years, and its budget gradually rose. According to the most recent capital improvement project report from the county budget office, the approved life-to-date budget of the project as of the project’s closure last June totaled just over $1.3 million, with nearly $997,500 of that funded through four separate bond issues between 2012 and 2018. And although the county code was subsequently amended to extend the amortization period to 30 years, Andritz said that the Jenkins Lane project was not grandfathered into that extension.

A public hearing on the proposed code change has been scheduled for Tuesday, March 31, at 6:00 pm at the Charles County Government building in La Plata. Because the proposed change does not affect the zoning code, it does not have to go before the Charles County Planning Commission for approval. Stay tuned to TLR for coverage of the public hearing and subsequent action by the commissioners on this proposal.