Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Political Economy of Infrastructure: Beavercreek Utilities

Utilities might seem a dull subject, as they are out of sight underground. But they play a big role setting the foundation for suburban growth, thus are wrapped up in the political economy of suburbia. Places that get water and sewer service can really boom.

The utilities situation in Beavercreek is a bit unusual as this suburb grew at first without any.

The first suburban developments had neither water nor sewer. Houses had private wells and septic systems, which was possible on the large lots

But as one can see from the lower part of the above diagram, public health issues could arise if there was two many septic systems and private wells in too close an area during periods of weather when the areas affected by well withdraws and leach field percolation intermingled.
Theoretically the need for large lots to keep withdrawl and disposal far apart to prevent contamination would limit the density of subdivisions, reducing the profit margin of the developer as he would be selling less lots.

One solution was central sewage.

A centralized sewage system was under construction for Beavercreek in 1964 and 1965, serving mostly Knollwood and other central parts of Beavercreek.

Yet this didn't solve the water supply problem, and not all of Beavercreek was served by the sewer system either, including areas with septic tank problems.

What's noticeable in the above map is the sharp division at the county line, where nearly all areas in Montgomery County, to the west (or left) had complete utilities.

Though some Beavercreek subdivisions close to the county line were connecting up to Montgomery County water the 1960s solution to water supply was the plat water system. This was a private water system put in either by the developer or by a private sector water company, that served just one or two subdivisions. The first one dated, I think, from 1963.

Plat water systems and central sewage permitted increased density in subdivisions, thus more profit for developers .

Plat water systems were an ad-hoc response to a problem. Plat water systems rarely connected with each other, and had limited expansion capability, which meant that surrounding undeveloped land remained somewhat undevelopable unless it, too, had a plat water system.

In the late 1960s a centralized water distribution was proposed, serving at first central Beavercreek, but with water lines out into the surrounding open country, bringing that land into the development market.

So the progression into the 1970s was from house-specfic "personal utility systems" to increasing levels of centralized services:

This wasn't a purley linear progression: as late as the early 1990s some parts of Beavercreek were still on private well water and septic systems. By the 1970s there was a mix of private wells on public sewer, private wells and septic systems, and plat water systems on either public sewer or septics.

Like I-675, but with water

The late 1960s water system proposal was defeated. Partly because of the high cost, but also because Beavercreek residents didn't want to see any more development. In the 1960s Beavercreek still had a quasi-rural feel, even in the older plat areas with their generous lots. Though one might dismiss this as NIMBYism, another way to look at this was that the citizens of Beavercreek at that time wanted growth control, and saw limits on utility services as a way to achieve this. So perhaps this opposition was akin the the I-675 controversy in that citizen opposition was driven by quality-of-life concerns.

But the big picture said otherwise.

This map from a 1969/1970 era map shows the utiltiy systems in the western & central parts of the Dayton metro area. One can see what a sharp divide the county line is, with Montgomery County suburbs having full services, but the Fairborn area too. Beavercreek had incomplete and limited utilities.

This map was from a MVRPC utilities planning document. Suprisingly, it does not show the proposed I-675, which was finalized by the time of this plan. It and it's exits are drawn in red here, showing how Beavercreek was a primo development opportunity, despite what the people actually living there wanted. The unstated subtext of this utilities plan was to extend complete utility service area beyond the proposed interstate, opening up much of western Greene County to developement.

Instead, according to the Greene County Sanitary Engineering website:

The 1970s saw many developers installing “plat water systems” that were turned over to the County to own and operate. The County was operating up to six separate water systems in Beavercreek at one time. As Beavercreek continued to grow in the 1970s, more and more residents were experiencing water problems, such as their wells going dry. In 1977 the Sanitary Engineer was directed by the Board of Greene County Commissioners to build a water system in the Beavercreek Township area for those residents that “needed and wanted it”.

This appears to be a good example of "public be damned" on the part of Greene County government. Subdivisions don't just happen. There is usually some sort of zoning and permitting process. So it seems local government, despite the wishes of Beavercreek residents who wanted to limit growth (was it a majority?) permitted unsustainable development to occur, percipitating a water crisis, which led to the start of a centralized water system.

And this centralized system was a prequisite for a real estate boom that would come with the construction of I-675.

One can see how utilities infrastructure issues overlapped highway infrastructure via this timeline.

Overcoming opposition to I-675 requied a change in Washington. Opposition to more growth in Beavercreek was apparently overcome by the fait accompli of unsustainable development, which drove the installation of a central water system.

Speculation land and on this blog. To really document this story would require some research into newspaper stories and interviews with the players. Presumably there would have had to be some coverage on this in the media as the involvment of the Greene County commision indicates this was in-part a political issue. In any case a good example showing how something obscure and quite and mundane like water and sewer service can be a big player in the urban srpawl phenomenon.

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