By Eric Mann

For years, residents in some of Daphne’s older neighborhoods have asked the city to extend access to its sanitary sewer system so they can disconnect from potentially hazardous septic tanks. Now residents in the city’s largest pocket of non-sewered homes will have the chance to connect to the system.

The city will spend approximately $1.6 million to complete the Whispering Pines sewer project, which will extend sewer service to 96 residents along and near Whispering Pines Road east of U.S. 98 and west of Baldwin County Road 13 in Daphne.

To date, the city has spent $97,841 for design engineering services and budgeted $1.38 million in the 2016 fiscal year for the project’s construction, but an additional $450,000 recently approved by the Daphne City Council will help break ground on the project.

“This goes back to Mayor [Bailey] Yelding, who had this great idea to make sure everyone in the city had access to sewer service,” Dane Haygood said. “At that time we had seven areas in the city without a connection to the city’s sewer system. We are down to six now, and the Whispering Pines project will get us down to five.”

In 2011, the city connected homes along Baldwin County Highway 64 from U.S. 98 to Pollard Road to the sewer system.

Haygood said the Whispering Pines project will take up the bulk of the estimated $2 million needed to extend sewer service to the entire city. About 200 homes in the city currently lack sewer service.

“This is by far the largest demographic and geographic area in the city without sewer,” he said. “There are some challenges inherent with a project like this, but I hope we are able to be finished within the next nine to 10 months.”

Last year the city applied for a $450,000 Community Development Block Grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but its application was denied. The grant also would have paid the connection fees for homeowners in the area.

However, Haygood said the city plans to meet with ADECA officials to find out if there are grants available to cover those connection fees. The mayor hopes to hear ideas about ways the Daphne Utility Board is willing to support the project at the board’s April 20 meeting. Haygood, a member of the Utility Board, said previous discussions in March about providing financial or in-kind support for the project ended without board recommendations.

Whispering Pines residents have expressed concerns about the potential environmental hazards related to homeowners with outdated septic tank systems. In a letter to the City Council in May 2015, Juniper Court resident Pam Henson asked councilors why established Whispering Pines residents did not have access to the sewer system, while nearby new homes and apartment developments did.

“We desperately need public sewer in the Whispering Pines community,” Henson wrote. “Some of my neighbors have had sewage back into their homes. Many of us have had other problems with our septic tanks and we very much want to connect to the public sewer in the city. Why haven’t we been offered the same service as everyone else? It will make Daphne a stronger community and a better place to live.”

Henson said she had her septic tank pumped once per year until 2009, when overflow problems became worse after long periods of rain or heavy washing machine use and standing water began accumulating around the tank in her yard. Henson told councilors she is only able to use her washing machine once a week now in an effort to avoid septic tank overflows.

“Certainly, if someone’s septic system fails it puts the homeowner at risk of a very big expense to replace it,” Haygood said. “But there are also environmental concerns when those systems fail. We want to make sure that everyone in the city has the same access to a safe, environmentally sound city sewer system.”

The mayor and City Council have long considered sewering the entire city to be one of the city’s top three priorities.

“First and foremost, this is one of the few projects the entire City Council has coalesced around,” Haygood said. “This is something that, throughout our discussions over the years, has risen to the top of our priority list with widespread support.”

Daphne City Councilman John Lake said a citywide sewer system has been in the works for more than 24 years. According to Lake, the City Council appropriated $500,000 during his first term in the early 1990s to extend sewer service to homes on College Avenue.

Lake pointed to a court case from April 1994, when the city’s utilities board was indicted by the Baldwin County District Attorney’s Office after high amounts of fecal matter were discovered in the bay off the city’s shore, which he said was blamed on an outdated wastewater treatment plant. The case was withdrawn later that year, according to court records.

Lake said at the time the city agreed to hire a full-time utilities manager and to notify residents of any significant sewage spills. Lake said the city also embarked on its plan to sewer the entire city around the same time.

“I’m glad to see we are finally moving forward on this,” Lake said. “I’m hoping the Utility Board will be willing to contribute to this project, which has been like a 24-year saga for the city to complete. When one person’s septic system fails, it is a detriment to everyone around them.”

The Whispering Pines homes connected to the public sewer would be managed by Daphne Utilities, which serves approximately 10,746 residential accounts.