Piney Run Drive is a quiet, wooded cul-de-sac in the Alexandria area of southern Fairfax County, Va., located off Old Telegraph Road, just north of Fort Belvoir. The road is lined with lush ferns and tangles of vines, and some yards are enclosed with wooden split-rail fences. The canopy of mature trees forms a tunnel over the narrow asphalt road, providing cooling shade during hot summers and a gorgeous palette of colors in spring and fall. With two schools and park trails nearby, it is an idyllic setting to raise a family.
The neighborhood’s nine homes, which were built in the 1950s, were served by conventional on-site sewage disposal systems that use a settling tank and drain field. These septic systems were inexpensive to operate and maintain and worked for several decades. But over the past several years, as the systems reached the end of their life cycle, they began to fail, and the residents’ quality of life began to suffer. Thus, action was taken to find a feasible plan to connect the neighborhood to the public sanitary sewer system.
After more than 12 years, and through the determined efforts of the community, the Lee District Supervisor’s office, a private developer, and the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, a sanitary sewer extension and improvement (E&I) project connecting these homes to the county’s wastewater collection system has been completed, providing needed relief for Piney Run residents.
Economic Downturn Tests Residents’ Patience
Michael Dorman and his wife purchased their home at the end of Piney Run Drive in March 2009. “We loved the location and the privacy it offered, yet being so close to everything,” he said. “It is a small house on 1.2 acres, but with all the parkland on two sides, it felt so much bigger.” Dorman says they bought the house with the understanding that a connection to public sewer was in the works. A new multifamily housing development for active older adults had been planned across the creek, and the developer included a proffer to extend the public sewer main to the neighborhood. This would have allowed the residents to pay for the installation of laterals from their homes and decommission their aging septic systems. But due to the Great Recession, the plans for the new development were shelved and Piney Run residents continued to take short showers and use as little water as possible, always worried about when their septic systems might fail and cause backups into their homes.
The Fairfax County Health Department oversees more than 21,000 on-site septic systems, but the County Code states that homeowners are responsible for maintaining their system or providing an approved method of sewage disposal if they begin to fail. Two of the lots along Piney Run had septic fields in Class 1 failure, posing an increased risk of surface and groundwater contamination. For more than eight years, Dorman’s neighbor, Jim Page, had to pay a private sewage disposal company to pump out his septic tank and haul the contents away. He describes living on pump and haul as extremely expensive, frustrating, and inconvenient. It was clear that the situation had become untenable for many of the Piney Run residents and a permanent solution was needed.
An Imperfect Solution
When it became apparent that the multifamily development project had been put on hold, the county’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services began evaluating viable options for connecting the neighborhood to public sewer. Design of the project began in late 2012 with the goal of bid-ready plans by October 2015. The original design was a gravity-based system that would run from the back of the cul-de-sac; however, after reviewing the pros and cons of the plan, an alternative solution was designed that would be more cost effective, more feasible to construct, and would also connect an additional handful of homes with on-site systems located north on Old Telegraph Road.
The new plan used a combination of gravity and low-pressure pipes and grinder pumps to serve each residence. This plan expanded the service area, which required petitioning the residents again to gain the required minimum 50 percent approval to move ahead with the project, a process that further delayed connection to the neighborhood.
The county’s E&I project was designed in-house and finalized by an engineering consultant, and the department’s Land Acquisition Division acquired three small sanitary sewer easements and nine letters of permission to begin construction. A solution had been designed, but it was going to be expensive and complicated.
Due to the area’s high water table and soil structure, the contractor would have needed to install sheet piling and use vacuum pumps to dewater the construction area. Whenever sheet piling is installed, there is a risk that ground vibrations could lead to cracked basement foundations. The topography of the area and the location of the existing and proposed manholes also presented challenges, requiring the county’s proposed design to excavate up to 17 feet below grade. Additionally, the county’s design would have required road closures along Old Telegraph Road, impacting traffic at a nearby school.
Bidding Delay Saves $1.9M
The project was initially advertised for construction bids in December 2015, but the bids from three contractors were rejected because of inconsistencies with the bids. The plan was revised to more clearly state the dewatering specifications and the project was rebid in August 2016. This setback would later prove to be a very positive turn of events for Piney Run residents and county sanitary sewer customers.
During the bidding process, Senior Right-of-Way Agent Lisa Baker was simultaneously involved in acquiring easements for another project in the area. During her research, she learned that a new developer, Elm Street Development, Inc., was restarting the multifamily project, now called Crest of Alexandria, and that the original land proffer was still in effect. Her findings led to an abrupt halt to the bidding process and a meeting between Elm Street and Public Works was held at the Lee District Supervisor’s office. An agreement was quickly reached, in which Elm Street would execute the land proffer and design and construct the E&I project. “We saved $1.9 million that we would have spent on construction for Piney Run,” said Baker. “It took a lot of time and research, but it definitely paid off.”
A Promise Fulfilled
With the county’s E&I solution off the table, Elm Street worked with an engineering firm to design the new gravity sanitary sewer system. Because of its location, the design didn’t require a force main, grinder pumps, or dewatering. If the proffer had been executed by the original developer, the only requirement would have been to install the public sewer main, not the laterals, which would’ve been the responsibility of each individual homeowner. However, the county’s design had included lateral connections, so to keep its commitment to the Piney Run residents, and the county contributed $56,000 to have the developer provide the individual tie-ins.
“The collaboration between DPWES, Elm Street, and the homeowners led to a cost efficient solution that benefitted all parties involved,” said Jim Perry, regional partner/vice-president, Elm Street Development. “We were able to install the public sewer main and private laterals at the same time, using one contractor, which saved money, reduced disturbance in the neighborhood, and allowed the residents to connect to the new system more quickly.”
New Connections Create Opportunity
Dorman, who provided the county with an easement across his property to the multifamily development said, “The sewer line is in the street and the laterals to each property have been installed, and the road has been paved for the first time in probably 40 years. For the street, it is a relief.”
For Page, the completion of the project was a satisfying conclusion to an effort in which many families had lost hope. “As a community, we are overjoyed that we are at long last connected to public sewer,” he said. He credits his neighbors’ resolve and the support of Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay.
Supervisor McKay said, “I have always fought for infrastructure improvements throughout Lee District, especially for our older communities like Piney Run. The Piney Run community was great to work with throughout the process as well. A true partnership was formed, and I could not be prouder of the work we’ve accomplished.”
In the end, the E&I project delivered more than just reliable sewer service, a sense of relief, and closure to Piney Run residents. A Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, for the Chesapeake Bay was established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010, which applies to Fairfax County. A TMDL establishes the maximum amount of a specific pollutant from a variety of sources that can enter a water body without violating water quality standards. The county receives credits toward total nitrogen reduction each time a home is taken off septic and connected to the public sanitary sewer system. This has happened 179 times since January 2006, resulting in the prevention of more than 1,800 pounds of total nitrogen from reaching local streams.
And, finally, decommissioning an on-site septic system frees up space on each lot to expand a home’s footprint. The Dormans plans to do just that. “Our house is very small, about the size of a two-bedroom apartment, but we always knew there was a lot of potential,” he said. They plan to build an addition to create more space for their two teenage daughters. With the new public sewer connection, the risk to public health and environmental damage from failing septic systems has been removed and Piney Run is once again the idyllic community it was always planned to be.