To allow for development on Hilliard's western fringes, Hilliard City Council members have asked to meet with Columbus officials about increasing the number of sanitary-sewer taps in the area.
Columbus provides water-and-sewer services to many central Ohio suburbs, including Hilliard. Sewer taps in those communities allow residents and businesses to connect to Columbus' sanitary-sewer system and eliminate the need for a septic tank.
But Hilliard leaders are facing the question: What happens when the available taps run out?
Local leaders have said that if City Council approves the rezoning of more than 200 acres of Scioto Darby Road for a proposed housing development known as Hill Farm, the 229 single-family residences would claim the remaining sanitary-sewer taps in that area. Hill Farm would be on the north side of Scioto Darby Road, west of Elliott Road and east of Langton Drive, and adjacent to the Sid Griffith Equestrian Center, 7380 Scioto Darby Road in Brown Township.
The timing is important because City Council is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Aug. 27 at the Hilliard Municipal Building, 3800 Municipal Way, to consider a rezoning request from M/I Homes, the developer. The rezoning is required for the project to proceed.
However, before council members convene that evening, a meeting is scheduled at 10 a.m. Aug. 27 at the office of Tracie Davies, director of the Columbus Department of Public Utilities, according to Hilliard law director Tracy Bradford.
The stakes to add the sewer taps are high, said councilman Les Carrier.
"You've got to be able to grow," he said. "We have to be able (to annex) to the west" so Plain City or any other municipality "does not wrap around us."
Only contiguous unincorporated land can be annexed, so if the city limits of two municipalities were to adjoin to the west of Hilliard, the city no longer could expand to the west, according to Carrier.
Examples of "landlocked" communities in Franklin County that cannot expand include Grandview Heights, Upper Arlington and Whitehall, he said.
"The ability to develop (in western Hilliard) is a question of equal protection," Carrier said. "If landowners in Plain City can develop, why not Hilliard? It's also a huge economic-development issue."
Meanwhile, Columbus officials said they are willing to listen to Hilliard's appeal.
"Hilliard has asked Columbus to have good-faith discussions regarding the existing limits on its water-and-sewer growth areas," Davies said. "Columbus is, of course, happy to engage in that conversation."
The current sanitary-sewer contract with Columbus began in 1994, and it includes an exclusive expansion area for Hilliard, by which properties can be annexed into Hilliard and receive sanitary-sewer services from Columbus, Bradford said.
"A large part of our exclusive expansion area includes properties that are located in the Big Darby Accord area, and it is that expansion area where the Big Darby Accord (Watershed) Master Plan document limited the city to 2,000 sanitary-sewer taps," she said.
Hilliard is one of the 10 local governments that created the Big Darby Accord in 2004 to preserve and protect the Big Darby Creek and its tributaries in western central Ohio, according to bigdarbyaccord.org. In 2008, Hilliard City Council approved the Big Darby Accord Watershed Master Plan, according to authorizing legislation.
"Our discussions with Columbus will relate to the exclusive expansion area as it exists today and to the availability of additional-sanitary sewer taps to the city," she said. "Modifying the exclusive expansion area would require that our sanitary-sewer contract with Columbus be modified."
The contract limits the sanitary-sewer taps, and that amount was decided when the city agreed to the nonbinding master plan, Carrier said.
The 2,000-tap limit is specific to sewer taps and not water taps, Bradford said. Some scenarios are possible for a landowner to tap into the public water system but have an on-site sanitary sewer system, she said; however, it would require approval by Franklin County, she said.
Columbus has contracts with more than 20 of its neighboring communities, including Hilliard, said Susan Ashbrook, assistant director of sustainability for the Columbus utilities department.
"Generally, the contracts provide the physical area where the suburb can provide water-and-sewer service to residents, how billing will be accomplished and other terms and conditions," Ashbrook said.
Columbus bills Hilliard residents based on rates established by Columbus City Council that include inside-city rates, suburban rates and master-meter rates, she said.
The rates are uniform for all similar contracts and do not vary by contract or suburb, Ashbrook said.
Columbus performs periodic rate studies to establish rates, she said.
Suburban city councils, such as Hilliard, typically levy a surcharge on water and sewer services. Columbus includes these surcharges on its bills to Hilliard residents and then remits the funds to Hilliard, Ashbrook said.
The request to add sewer taps in western Hilliard has a few variables.
John Ivanic, assistant director of the Columbus utilities department, said city leaders were not interested in re-opening the terms of the Big Darby Accord, a multijurisdictional agreement that limited the number of sewer taps in that area of the Big Darby watershed to 2,000.
"The city of Columbus is happy to sit down with Hilliard leadership to discuss this development issue (but) is on record as saying we will not entertain a re-opening of the Darby Accord at this time," Ivanic said.
The Big Darby Accord was the result of a moratorium on development that Columbus placed on the Big Darby watershed in western Franklin County, according to Butch Seidle, Hilliard's public-services director.
Columbus controls sewer taps in the area based on a study of available capacity, Seidle said, and it is the only local government that could increase the number of sewer taps.
Seidle, when asked his view of City Council's initiative to approach Columbus, said on behalf of the administration that he reserved comment until further discussion with City Council, which has been on recess since July 9 and returns Aug. 27.
Council President Albert Iosue said City Council took action because he does not believe city officials initially took the right approach to address the issue.
He said city officials made "an informal approach" rather than a formal request to evaluate service capacity.
To that end, City Council approved a resolution July 9 that directed Bradford to send a letter to Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther.
The Aug. 27 meeting was scheduled in response to the July 9 letter, Bradford said. The purpose of the meeting, she said, is to "discuss the possibility of enlarging our exclusive expansion area which would result in additional sanitary sewer taps being allocated (to Hilliard) by Columbus."
"Capacity analysis and a review of our current sanitary-sewer infrastructure and flow patterns will certainly play a part in these discussions," she said.
The contract between Hilliard and Columbus stipulates that both parties shall review the boundaries every five years "upon a showing of good-faith cause in writing," according to Bradford's letter.
The letter also refers to the Big Darby Accord Watershed Master Plan approved in April 2008 that allocates 2,000 sewer taps in the city's remaining expansion area.
Bradford wrote that the city since has annexed within the boundaries of its expansion area but "is nearing the end of its sewer-tap allotment, even though there are areas within our exclusive expansion area that have yet to be annexed into our corporate limits."
The letter said that "without any current capacity analysis from Columbus to support the 2,000 sewer-tap limitation placed on Hilliard, and upon Columbus' having filed a petition with the Ohio EPA to provide sanitary-sewer services to approximately 11,500 new residential units planned for Plain City ... we firmly believe that Hilliard has good cause to review its expansion areas with Columbus for both water and sewer services."
"When (Columbus) tells us we only have 2,000 taps but then they are giving (11,500) to Plain City, we want to understand capacity ... because there are other areas we know that we want to develop (in Hilliard)," Iosue said.
Ashbrook said Plain City approached Columbus about providing water-and-sewer services.
"Columbus investigated whether it had the capacity to provide service to Plain City and determined that it did," she said.
However, Columbus' sewer-service area, known as a "facility-planning area," or FPA, does not include Plain City, which is in Madison County.
Columbus needs the Ohio EPA to amend the FPA before any further discussions or any formal agreement could occur, Ashbrook said. Columbus on April 11 petitioned the Ohio EPA to change the FPA and that petition remains pending, she said.
If Columbus does enter into a contract with Plain City, it will be a "master-meter contract" that would make Plain City responsible for the system's maintenance, she said.
Only a handful of municipalities, perhaps four or five, are of the "master-meter" variety in which Columbus provides water only via a master meter entering the city, leaving individual meter reading, billing, maintenance and other tasks to the contracted municipality, Ashbrook said.
A majority of cities, including Hilliard, are billed the uniform suburban rates, she said.
"In order to provide service to Plain City, Columbus will need to extend a subtrunk, which it will do at its expense," Ashbrook said. "Columbus will bear this expense because the subtrunk is needed for future growth that will occur in Columbus. Plain City will then be responsible for paying for the infrastructure to reach the terminus of the Columbus subtrunk."
The extension of the subtrunk to Plain City is a different subtrunk from the one into which Hilliard discharges, "so this capacity is separate from the capacity issues" that affect Hilliard, she said.
Plain City also is not part of the Big Darby Accord because the accord is limited to Franklin County, Ashbrook said.