By DOUG NURSE http://www.ajc.com/
Milton enjoys a quality of life that many might envy.The north Fulton community features winding, tree-lined roads dotted with estate homes and horse farms, good schools and a sense of sanctuary.
Many Milton residents are determined to protect the rural charm. They share a deep-seated fear of being steam-rolled by those well-known country killers: high-density housing, strip malls, industrial parks and the like.Some believe they have a secret weapon in a war that many others have fought — and lost — in metro Atlanta. Septic tanks.
Despite concerns that septic tanks can cause environmental problems if they're not maintained, many residents see them as a way to keep the bulldozers at bay."Sewer brings density, and density will ruin Milton," said Ferrall Sumrell, who has lived there since 1994. "If you look at any area with sewer, you'll see increased density. Septic tanks will keep Milton from being overdeveloped."Sumrell has plenty of support. An anti-sewer petition last year in Milton quickly garnered about 560 signatures.
Many comments had a similar tone.
"Completely against this [sewer] ... Growth must stop," wrote Courtney Hensley.
"I DO NOT want sewers in Milton," commented Dolores Marshall. "The developers have done enough damage already. Let's keep our beautiful city beautiful."
The City Council is faced with conflicting pressures. The cash-strapped city could use taxes from more sewer-connected commercial property, but that must be balanced with the desire to preserve Milton's agrarian flavor. In the next month or two, the council is expected to directly address the sewer/septic debate and formulate an official policy.
Milton, located in the northernmost corner of Fulton County, has 20,000 mostly affluent residents. (The average house on the market in Milton lists for about $800,000.) Only about 10 to 15 percent of the city is connected to sewer.
Septic tanks generally require at least an acre of land for the drainfield and a replacement drainfield, which precludes intensive development, said City Councilwoman Julie Zahner Bailey, the leading advocate against sewer.
The community's no-sewer stance is not new. As the area developed, its residents pressured Fulton County to keep sewer out in order to maintain its country atmosphere. Now, the city is only about 35 to 45 percent developed, and residents still revel in the rural feel of the area.
Tom Wilson, Milton's former director of community development, estimated that only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the city is connected to sewer. Up to now, the City Council has consistently opposed any requests for sewer expansion for others to hook on to – including one from a man whose property is surrounded by sewer.
Dennis Potts owns 8.5 acres in southeast Milton, and he has sewer within 300 yards of his property. At this point he wants to de-annex into Alpharetta. He wants to join with a piece of property in Alpharetta that has sewer. He can't get sewer for his commercially zoned property in Milton."I've had it sold three times, but the deal fell through because I couldn't get sewer," he said. "This is an idea they all have had since Day One, about what they think they can make Milton into. They've got everything shut down."As a strategy, it may be working, Potts said.
"People in the development community are starting to say, 'You don't want to invest in Milton because you can't get sewer.' If you can't get sewer, you can't develop."
Newly hired City Manager Billy Beckett has learned in a hurry how important the sewer vs. septic debate is in Milton."It is a linchpin issue," he said. "We need to resolve this, so we can move on to other issues. It's almost a daily topic of conversation. Sometimes, we spend hours devoted to it."
The sewer-septic issue was the key issue in the last election. Candidates tagged as "pro-sewer" were defeated.
Water supply, quality
Milton's strategy runs counter to what other cities and counties are doing. Gwinnett, Forsyth and Douglas counties, for example, are trying to ensure that new development is on sewer.
Forsyth County Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse said the county wants to minimize the use of septic tanks as much as possible. He estimates that over the past four years, 90 percent of all rezoned residential property has been tied to sewer."With septic tanks you lose the water," Laughinghouse said. "With sewer, you collect it, process it, treat it and discharge it back to the source. In theory, you have zero water loss. With water in short supply, we're going to need every drop we can get."
Forsyth's position is consistent with state and federal studies that have determined that septic tanks are to some degree, a "consumptive use," meaning water is used and then lost in the soil.
The federal and state environmental agencies say that septic tanks are a viable alternative if they are properly sited, installed and maintained. But critics say septic tanks can pollute groundwater and often are not maintained.
Gwinnett County Water Resource Program Specialist Frank Stephens said Gwinnett also is concerned about pollution from septic tanks. He said septic tanks often are not maintained, with nasty results. Many people don't even know they're on septic tanks until they fail, he said.
"When septic tanks aren't properly maintained, and, according to the literature, many aren't maintained, bad stuff goes in the groundwater," Stephens said. "If you have enough failing septic tanks concentrated in a limited area, it's really bad for the environment."
Supporters of the no-sewer-expansion policy point out that sewer systems also fail sometimes and in larger volume. And, they argue, growth from sewer would bring more people, more water consumption and more storm water runoff.
Many Milton residents don't care if other places are trying to limit septic tanks."Keep Milton uncomplicated. If you want a sewer connect, move to Roswell or Alpharetta," wrote Matthew West, who said he's lived in all three cities.