Hamlet’s wait for sewage treatment drags on 7 years
Less than a mile down the road from a million-dollar emblem of greater Washington’s housing boom, Emma Howard and her son, Bishop, tote drinking water from neighbors or buy it at the Safeway eight miles away. They scrape their plates into a slop bucket on the kitchen floor and wash them in a basin of boiled water.And they relieve themselves in a wood-planked outhouse across the back yard.The Howards and 15 other people live in the western Loudoun County hamlet of Willisville. Surrounded by rolling pastures, horse-country manors and new mansions–many with four or more bathrooms–most of Willisville has existed without indoor plumbing since it was founded just after the Civil War, when freed slave Heuson Willis bought a cabin on three acres for $100.It was terrible land then, and it is terrible today: soggy, heavy with clay, not fit for crops, pastures or, more recently, septic tanks. But on the eve of the 21st century, Loudoun officials promised to help. In 1999, the county received a state loan to build a small sewage treatment plant in Willisville.Seven years later, at least six residents live with outhouses and no running water; an additional nine live in houses with failing septic systems. Construction on the sewage plant has not begun, and its projected cost has more than doubled, from $250,000 to about $600,000. Design delays, bureaucratic hurdles and government neglect have caused the Willisville On-Site Wastewater Treatment and Disposal Project to founder, county officials say.”It’s a travesty, I think,” said the Rev. Reginald Early, who moved to Middleburg from Portsmouth, Va., in 2000 to become pastor of Willisville Chapel, which is among the properties with substandard plumbing. “Coming from the city and seeing some of our elders coming out of outhouses in the 21st century, it was just mind-boggling.”All the more outrageous, he said, is the proximity of luxurious new houses. Angela King, 43, can see one through the woods from her back door. King, who grew up in Willisville, is among its luckier residents; she has a failing system rather than none. But across the street, rented Johnny Blues stand outside the Smiths’ and the Lees’ homes, pumped clean by a service truck once a week. Family members keep chamber pots in their rooms at night.”The rim is really thin, so you would have the pot mark” on your skin, said Jennifer Thompson-Grant, 30, a deputy clerk in Loudoun County Circuit Court, who grew up with no plumbing at her grandmother’s house and lived there with her young son until last year, when she moved in with her mother.Thompson-Grant said she has grown impatient with the slow pace of progress, worrying that members of the older generation will slip away without ever taking a hot shower or flushing a toilet in their own homes.A little more than an hour from the U.S. capital, Ethel Smith, 77, still bathes in an aluminum tub on her kitchen floor. Howard, who has trouble walking across the yard to an outhouse made warmer by a patch of carpet on the floor, uses a hospital-style commode in her bedroom.”It’s just something we happen to have,” said Smith, a retired schoolteacher who lives in a wood-frame house with two dogs in front, chickens and pigs in the back and a brown portable john standing sentry over a clutter of old cars, swing sets and piles of wood. “I haven’t had a bathroom all my life.”The fact that an affluent, fast-growing county–where leaders plan to spend a half-billion dollars building 15 schools in the next six years–has allowed one of the smallest capital projects on its books to drag on for so long has perplexed not only the people of Willisville but also Loudoun officials.”I’m extremely disappointed that it has taken so long,” said Supervisor James Burton, I-Blue Ridge, whose district includes Willisville. “Clearly, staff dropped the ball and let it slip through the cracks, and I think that is unfortunate.”County officials say the project became entangled in the red tape of more than a half-dozen local and state agencies. Designing a tiny sewage plant to serve 12 parcels was more complicated than they anticipated. Regulatory approval was required on health, environmental and highway right-of-way issues, slowing progress to a crawl.Officials say e-mails among agency officials revisited the same issues from one year to the next. Basic questions of scope, involvement and responsibility remained unanswered for years, county officials acknowledge.”We did not dedicate the staff resources to follow the project through,” said Paul Brown, an assistant to the county administrator overseeing capital projects.That is changing, Brown said. Staff turnover on the Willisville project last year brought it to the attention of County Administrator Kirby Bowers. So did complaints from Burton, who for at least two years has been pressuring county staff to account for delays. The fact that the cost has grown–requiring an additional appropriation from the county this month–also has given the project urgency, Brown said. Six months ago, Bowers named Brown, who reports to him, to supervise the project to the end.Residents say they can’t help but ask themselves: Was tiny Willisville, a modest, aging black community, too easy to forget?”We have had patience with the sewer, but this really is ridiculous,” said Carol Lee, 50, who rents a small bungalow at the western end of Willisville. “When it snows, we’re not the first to get our road cleared. When the lights go off, we’re not the first to get them back on. But when you see houses getting built with God knows how many bathrooms in them, and you only live five miles away, that’s a little disheartening.”Lee’s home is one of seven in Willisville with septic tanks and indoor plumbing, but county officials say all the systems are substandard. The proof is outside Lee’s window: a sodden, poorly draining yard that swallows an inch of shoe with every gooey step.Lee and her daughter, Thompson-Grant, have become the spokeswomen for Willisville, leaning on county officials for progress reports and speaking out at meetings.The older folks came of age during segregation and were taught that raising a ruckus would bring only trouble, Thompson-Grant said. They worked hard for what they have and have long feared that calling attention to their sanitary conditions could cause them to lose their homes. Most made their livings in modest ways–as maids and farmhands and horse trainers’ assistants on the surrounding estates.Brown, the project’s supervisor, has pledged to the residents of Willisville that the plant will be built this year. He has a firm schedule: bid documents ready within a month; bidders’ responses due a month after that; construction to start in June; project finished by December. Brown is holding monthly community meetings to keep residents up to date. They like that.They also like the signs of activity at the western end of Welbourne Road, the backbone of Willisville. On a recent morning, a crew stood with heavy equipment in the underbrush where the treatment plant will be. As they drilled borings to gather soil data, Lee watched with a look of satisfaction.