By Richard Sullins |

In what was hailed as an historic day in Sanford, the city council last week approved an agreement with Pittsboro to merge the water systems of the two municipalities into a single unit that will be owned and controlled by Sanford.

Negotiations to arrive at a mutually beneficial agreement were more than ten years in the making, according to the city’s public works director, Victor Czar.

Chet Mann sat in the mayor’s chair for almost all of that decade and he continued to press for the project’s approval until the day his term expired in 2022, and it seemed fitting to many who attended the meeting that the former mayor was also there to witness the culmination of many meetings, phone calls, emails, and engineering studies in the final 28-page document that spells out how the merger will take place.

Current Mayor Rebecca Wyhof Salmon spoke about the long road that came to an end after the city council approved the agreement.

“This process – from end to end – has been a really amazing piece of governing,” she said. “It has been a very complicated process to wrap our heads around at times, but the council has shown us that we can learn to put our concerns aside for the moment and learn something by diving deeply into it.”

Indeed, the process did get complicated at times. Four separate votes were required at the meeting to ultimately express Sanford’s approval of the plan and the city’s willingness to be a participant in the process.

Goal: an enhancement for both, a burden for neither

Czar said the agreement approved by the council “is something we’ve been working on for a long time, but I think that it will benefit the whole region for years to come.”

He told the council that mergers of water systems are commonplace across the country, with larger cities absorbing the water and sewer services of smaller towns that they surround.

But having a mid-sized city like Sanford to merge its water systems with a neighboring town the size of Pittsboro has rarely been tried before, and if all goes according to plan, as Czar believes it will, the agreement could become a model for other mid-sized cities.

Mac McCarley, an attorney with the Parker Poe law firm in Charlotte who has been working to facilitate the arrangement, said “nothing being agreed to between the two municipalities is designed or intended to be a burden on existing Sanford utility customers.”

The obligations being imposed by the interlocal agreement will be upon the Pittsboro service area.

McCarley explained that the rates presently charged for water and sewer services by Pittsboro are today significantly higher than rates for the same services in Sanford. Over the next few years, Pittsboro’s goal will be to achieve rate parity – meaning the rates for their services will be brought down to meet what Sanford is charging, and that will be done largely through economies of scale and an expected explosion of growth in the Chatham Park area.

But McCarley sought to drive home a point about rates, repeating it several times during his presentation.

“The goal of this merger,” he said, “is not to raise anyone’s water bill or anyone’s sewer bill. The goal here is to reduce everyone’s costs through economies of scale. For example, having a single water treatment facility that is large enough to care for both locations will much cheaper to operate in the long run than the two smaller ones that are in operation now.”

The agreement provides for Sanford to assume ownership of all the Pittsboro’s existing water treatment infrastructure no later than the date when the merger is completed on June 30, 2024. This is to include “all real and personal property composing the (Pittsboro) Utility System, including, without limitation, all collection and distribution system infrastructure, all physical infrastructure, real and personal property, cash assets, relevant documents and records, customer accounts, and any other items associated with the Town Utility System.”

Pittsboro water system customers will become customers of Sanford and will receive and pay their bills through the city’s online portal. Existing employees with the Pittsboro system will not lose their jobs, but instead will be offered employment with Sanford between August 2 and June 30 and will get to keep their accrued sick and vacation leave balances.

Capital improvements planned

The agreement also contains requirements for three essential capital improvement projects that are to be completed by Sanford to make the system functional. The city will design, permit, and construct a 2-million gallons per day force main transmission line from Pittsboro to Sanford along U.S. 15-501 to move Pittsboro’s wastewater to Sanford’s treatment facility.

A second capital project will consist of an upgrade of the Sanford Water Treatment Plant, increasing its capacity from handling 12 million gallons per day to 30 million gallons. The final portion of this three-tiered plan for physical improvements will be the construction of a water transmission line from Triangle Innovation Point in eastern Chatham County to Pittsboro. TIP is the location of the VinFast automotive manufacturing facility where EVs and the batteries that power them will be made starting in 2025.

Neighbors helping neighbors

Pittsboro was settled in 1785, four years after Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown and a full 89 years before Sanford was founded in 1874. Today, about 5,000 people call Pittsboro home, making it about one-sixth the size of Sanford, but it’s a rapidly growing community that is attracting new families and new industries to employ them.

But like most cities, the water delivery and treatment systems within Pittsboro were never meant to accommodate the levels of growth being experienced in the third decade of the 21st century. And as this inevitable growth continues to stretch the fabric of the town’s ability to handle it, there are shortages in water and wastewater capacities, issues with wastewater treatment, and even problems with water quality.

Over the last 20 years, Pittsboro has been forced to impose a temporary moratorium, or extend an existing moratorium, 15 times because of the limitations of its water treatment system. These actions have impacted construction of new residential developments, as well as commercial or industrial buildings.

But what Pittsboro lacks, Sanford has in great abundance: ready access to an abundant supply of clean water. Sanford draws its water from the Cape Fear River and discharges it into the Deep River (a Cape Fear tributary), but its wastewater scrubbing capabilities are so thorough that the water discharged into the river is tested to be cleaner than water drawn from the river downstream for drinking.

Pittsboro recognized in 2009 that it needed a partner organization to help solve the limitations that its water systems were placing on its potential for growth and within two years, it began exploring a connection between its Wastewater Treatment Plant and the city of Sanford to increase its capacity.

Others nearby, facing the same circumstances as Pittsboro, began reaching out to Sanford as a potential partner and in 2021, an interlocal agreement was reached between the city and Pittsboro, Chatham County, Holly Springs, and Fuquay-Varina to study, design, and complete construction of an 18-million gallons per day wastewater treatment facility upgrade in Sanford to meet the needs of all five partners.

After the last of the four scheduled votes was taken on Tuesday, Mayor Salmon paused the meeting to pay tribute to the many council members, staff, and economic development professionals who worked for more than a decade to hammer out an accord that will lay the foundation for a new kind of economic partnership, one focused on the sharing of natural resources in the advancement of a region, instead of just a city or even a county.

“What we’ve been able to do here is to break new ground by trying something that really hasn’t been done before,” she said. “This kind of governing is hard, and it takes time, but many people saw the value of what could be gained by rolling up our sleeves and working side by side. Now, all that hard work is about to pay off.”