DELAWARE — The lonely buildings just west of the Scioto River, on the western edge of Delaware County, should be buzzing with energy.
The intake building should be churning wastewater, filtering impurities and supporting the development and growth that have made the rest of the county an economic powerhouse, fueled by sought-after schools and new homes.
But 10 years after it was built, the Lower Scioto Water Reclamation Facility is a quiet place, operating at less than 10 percent of its capacity of about 1.4 million gallons per day. Only one of its large outdoor aeration tanks is needed, and its water levels are low.
For most of its life, the plant in Concord Township has sat vacant, like a promised housing project with no tenants. This was a plant built to service waste streams from subdivisions that were never built.
To understand why, you have to return to 2007 and before, to landowners and developers who sought profit by extending their reach north from Dublin and Columbus.
Don Kenney had plans to build a golf course, school and homes on 1,200 acres, “one big chunk,” said Bart Johnson, a lifelong resident and current Concord Township trustee.
The plant would be built on the promises of Kenney and others who set up a new community authority to finance it, pledging the taxes from future homeowners.
“One of the reasons the county went ahead and (allowed) the plant is because they weren’t supposed to pay for it,” said Johnson. The thought was “We were supposed to get a free plant out of it.”
“But in 2007, the project just went away,” Johnson recalled. Kenney “pulled the plug on that.”
Once it became clear that the housing project wouldn’t happen, “We as trustees said ‘Well, obviously the sewer plant can’t be built either,'” Johnson said.
But construction continued, funded by the Concord-Scioto Community Authority, bond sales and other debt. The county gave the authority the right to charge new homeowners, expected to number in the thousands, to tap into the sewers. Those fees were supposed to pay off the bonds.
The persistence, amid an economy on the verge of collapse, angered residents, especially those living near the site along Moore Road, who complained to Concord trustees.
“With the extremely negative impact to property values and quality of life of the nearby residents, this board asks that this project not move forward until township and resident input is considered,” trustees wrote to Delaware County commissioners in September 2007.
One of those residents, Betsy Moffitt, recalled fierce fighting to keep the plant out.
“My big gripe was that they proposed it for our side of the river, but did it for all the housing on the other side of the river,” she recalled. “It’s the bait and switch that really got me going.”
Today, Moffitt, a real-estate agent, lives along the Scioto, less than a mile from the plant. “Now that it’s running, we don’t think about it. There’s no smell at my house.”
The first inflow arrived Nov. 13 last year, pumping under the O’Shaughnessy Reservoir from developments to the east. Workers in the intake building took pictures, “watching the first slug of wastewater come in,” said Michael Frommer, Delaware County administrator.
Hired in April 2016 to direct the county’s sewer district, Frommer recalled the main concern: “We’ve had this plant out here that’s been idle for all these years. We need to get it up and running.”
Today, he said, “It’s kind of like your grandma’s old car that she hardly drove and can’t drive anymore. A lot of stuff is brand new on it, but it’s outdated.”
While most of the warranties have expired, and maintenance is costly, everything still functions.
Kenney, hailed by some as a genius because he foresaw the housing market collapse, said he simply made a business decision.
High interest rates, unrestrained lending and a feeling of invincibility were warning signs, Kenney said.
“It was the market that I saw was going to turn, and I didn’t want to be a part of it,” he said.
Once completed, without homes to feed into it, the $23 million plant sat unused.
The banking collapse in 2008 took its toll. Sewer tap sales stalled, and the authority couldn’t make its debt payments.
Five years ago, Delaware County commissioners, in a controversial bailout, agreed to repurchase the taps for $14 million, essentially taking ownership of the still-idle plant that had become a financial sinkhole. The bailout meant that developers and investors who bought into the plant were paid back.
Today, Kenney is building at least five subdivisions east of the Scioto. About 300 of 1,000 homes are complete and pumping into the sewage plant.
“If they’re not optimistic now, they should be,” Kenney said of his detractors. “This is as good as it gets.”
Still, large plastic bags, which collect solids missed by a filtering machine, are replaced monthly.
“If this were running at capacity, we’d be doing it every other day,” Frommer said.
The county has about $30 million invested in the plant. And while fertile ground surrounds the operation, Frommer isn’t expecting much more growth.
“We just want to get the plant up and operational and move past the rest of it,” he said.