The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors last week signaled its approval of a request to connect Monticello to public sewer lines and expand its access to public water, despite county staff’s recommendations against the new infrastructure.
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the private organization that owns and operates the UNESCO World Heritage site and in 2011 recorded assets of $233.6 million, has asked permission to build sewer lines servicing the historic house, its visitor center, and other existing and future buildings, and to extend water lines to a new storage tank at nearby Montalto and other spots on the mountain—all at its own expense. Onsite septic fields are reaching their capacity, the Foundation has said, and current water access could leave some parts of the mountaintop vulnerable if there was a fire.
But the county’s criteria for expanding public utilities in rural zones are strict. Its comprehensive plan dictates that only developed areas should be served, and exceptions should be made only when a property is adjacent to an already served area or when public health or safety is in danger.
That’s not the case with the Foundation’s request, as county staff explained in a four-page report ahead of last week’s meeting.
“The continued connection of properties in the Rural Area to the public system results in further extension of lines from the fringe…potentially straining water and sewer resources and the capacity to serve higher priority needs,” read the report, which recommended denying the request.
But the Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed that Monticello ought to be an exception to the exception, and moved the request to public hearing anyway.
Board Chair Ann Mallek said she and her fellow supes weren’t ignoring the recommendation from staff. It’s their job to lay out the rules, she said, and elected officials’ job to determine whether a request is a special case. Monticello is a key cultural and economic resource for Albemarle, she said, and the county doesn’t have to worry about an expansion of utilities spurring more growth there, because development on the mountain is capped at a few additional buildings.
“We are community stewards to an international asset here,” said Mallek. “We have to step up further than we do for a cluster of houses.”
That’s the sentiment the Foundation was hoping for. President Leslie Greene Bowman said the organization has been evaluating its options for updating Monticello’s aging infrastructure since 2008, and has determined footing the bill for a public connection, while “certainly not the cheapest thing we could do,” is its only viable choice. Neither skimping on fire suppression capacity nor bulldozing Jefferson’s historic orchard to put in a new leach field seemed like good options.
“I don’t think 450,000 visitors a year really want to look at a septic field,” she said. “The only historically and environmentally responsible option is to ask the county to connect us to public facilities so we’re not in any way continuing to damage historic ground.”
Bowman declined to give an estimate for the cost of the new lines, but county staff confirmed that the Foundation would be on the hook for design, installation, and maintenance for everything on its property, including an underground sewage pipe that would run from the mountaintop to a public hookup near the Moore’s Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant—a facility which, Mallek pointed out, was built on land donated by the Foundation.
With that in mind, Mallek said, “it would seem the height of rudeness to say no.”