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Murphy’s Law turns simple water line repair into quagmire

fr elysiniaResidents and business owners in Hazelwood have grown increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of water-and-sewer line work that has left their street torn up and blocked off since December.

The drawn-out repair has inched forward almost imperceptibly. Some digging here, some scratching there — but little sign the project undertaken by Waynesville’s water and sewer crews is advancing to the finish line.

“Hindsight being 20-20, they would have been much better off hiring a contractor to come in and get it done,” said Joe Beasley, owner of Haywood Smokehouse, which is on the street. “I don’t feel like they are able to handle a project of this magnitude.”

Those who live and work on Elysinia Avenue have become adept at skirting the heavy machinery and dodging the yawning crevices, even off-roading through each other’s yards to reach their own driveways when equipment is blocking the way. But they’re ready for it to be over.

Business at the mouth-watering Haywood Smokehouse is down 30 to 40 percent compared to last winter. Waitresses and cooks who rely on tips are suffering, too.

“This is a big, big hit on us financially. It has hurt,” Beasley said. “I don’t think they intended to do anybody harm, but I think they got in over their heads. What we are looking for now is a solution.”

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It was supposed to be an in-and-out project to replace an old, corroded water pipe that was too narrow to meet current water demands.

There’s a long list of reasons why it hasn’t been as simple as expected — weather delays, discovery of a rotten sewer line, a gravel supply issue, emergency line breaks diverting the crew’s attention and a stubborn layer of river rock.

But Public Works Director David Foster pledged last week to take the bull by the horns. He has doubled the manpower by putting the town’s entire water-and-sewer department on the project.

“Let’s run the red flag up and pull the rip cord so we don’t leave the crew out there in a bind,” Foster said. “What we are going to do is supercharge the crew.”

Foster appeared before the town board of aldermen last week to explain why the project was taking so long, and the redoubling of efforts now underway to get it finished.

“We’ve gotten into a quagmire, and I appreciate the plan to try to get ourselves out of it,” Mayor Gavin Brown said.

Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan sympathized with people who live on the street.

“There is no joke about it, it is a muddy mess,” Morgan said.

But when each passing day means lost revenue, another six weeks of street work — the latest projected completion date — is six weeks too many for Seth and Patty Bach, the owners of Animal Magnetism dog grooming, boarding and day care.

“I know we are taking a hit. No one can get to us,” Seth said.

The torn-up street has posed a challenge for clients trying to drop off their dogs for grooming or daycare.

“Some of our clients are elderly or they have two or three dogs. They are trying to carry one and walk two on a leash and trample through a construction site,” Patty said. “Or, if you have a dog and are in your dress shoes trying to drop off your dog and get to work, it is a huge inconvenience.”

Irritation spread beyond Elysinia Avenue to the surrounding neighborhood. The street is a vital cut-through for getting around Hazelwood. It’s a corridor to the Hazelwood shopping district, a commuter route to local schools, and a main outlet into town from the bypass.

“One of the main exits coming into Waynesville is essentially disabled,” Seth said.

Beasley questioned if there would be a greater sense of urgency had the same street work been happening near downtown Waynesville instead of Hazelwood.

Rather than tear up the whole street at once, crews have tackled a 100-foot section at a time, digging up the street, unearthing the water and sewer lines, replacing them, covering them back up and then moving on to the next 100-foot section. As the crew works its way down the street, it has to disconnect each house from the lines and put in new water and sewer taps, tearing up the sidewalks and tunneling under the curbs in the process.

Bach said he watched the pit’s slow march toward their dog grooming and daycare business, and as it closed in, he and his wife decided to take a mid-winter break and closed last week. He called his neighbor every day to check on the progress of the pit, however.

“He would tell me ‘They are past your first driveway,’ and I would call back and he would say ‘They are in-between your two driveways,’” Bach recounted.

Bach said the pace has definitely picked up. But not enough.

A bigger road crew would have two shifts with more manpower, working weekends and nights. But the town crew knocks off for an hour at lunch and shuts down by 3:30 p.m. every afternoon.

“One reason it has taken so long is they don’t work on weekends and don’t work extra hours,” Bach said.

As luck would have it, with the big pit squarely in front of his business Monday — even blocking him in after he came to work — a hydraulic hose on the digging machinery broke and work halted while workers went off in search of parts and turned their attention to fixing the machinery.


What went wrong

Foster is the first to admit the project got a rocky start — literally.

When crews dug up the street to replace the water line, they discovered the subsurface was comprised of large chunks of river rock. It was too rocky to compact properly and would cause too much wear and abrasion on the pipe.

So instead of digging up the line, replacing it, and burying it again, truckloads of the old rock had to be hauled off and new gravel brought in for fill — significantly adding time to the job.

Getting gravel has been complicated by truncated winter hours at the nearby Allens Creek quarry.

“The odd wintertime hours of the quarry made it difficult to get stone,” Foster said.

The project started out as a mere water line replacement. The 1.5-inch galvanized steel pipe running down Elysinia Avenue was chocked with corrosion and too small for modern demands.

When the waterline was unearthed, crews discovered the sewer line was pocked with leaks and had to be replaced as well.

“We didn’t know there would be a quarter-mile of rotten sewer down there that we would be obligated to fix,” Foster said.

Environmental regulations prohibit the town from simply covering the sewer pipes back up once they know they are leaking. 

Weather has been a major factor, with January marked by a plethora of snowy, icy or wet days that forced work to a halt. Meanwhile, the crew has occasionally been pulled off the job to fix emergency leaks that spring up as a matter of course, Foster said.

“Winter is not the best time to have a water crew tied up because that’s when your leaks happen,” Foster said.

Now, they have marching orders to stay on the job regardless what else pops up. Ironically, the timing for the project during winter months was an effort to accommodate the businesses, who specifically requested the town wait until the fall tourist season was over before starting.


Calling in the cavalry

The Elysinia Avenue project is being tackled by the town’s new in-house water-and-sewer capital construction crew. 

While the town has always had a water-and-sewer crew to tackle routine leaks, the addition of a dedicated capital construction crew was aimed at saving money on outside contractors.

“We were clicking off at $600,000 to $800,000 a year for private contractors,” Foster said. The four-man in-house crew costs the town only $210,000 a year in salaries, plus another $100,000 or so in materials — a net savings to the town of $300,000 a year.

“It is a bargain,” Foster said.

But the side effect is that the project’s taken longer. Unlike an outside contractor with more manpower at its disposal, the town’s in-house crew has only four guys, precluding the idea of a second shift who can work into the evening or on weekends.

The crew works an 8-hour day, from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with a one-hour lunch break. 

Had the job been contracted out, the town would have faced major cost over-runs when they realized there was a rotten sewer line that needed replacing in addition to the water line, Foster said.

“If you were bidding 1,000 feet of water line and then say ‘Now I need you to fix 1,000 feet of sewer line,’ that would have been a premium change order,” Foster said.

But thanks to the in-house crew, the town’s only cost is additional supplies and materials.

Foster said the project is the largest one the new in-house capital construction crew has taken on since its launch last summer.

Beasley questioned whether it was more than the town’s crew could handle in-house, however.

“I don’t think it was necessarily planned out correctly, and I don’t think they invested the proper resources into getting it done,” Beasley said.

Beasley said the town’s mayor, public works director and interim manager have all paid him a visit in the past couple weeks to express condolences and convey the new game plan to get the work done, but Beasley wonders if it’s time to cut their losses and hire the rest of the job done.

“I think they have been genuinely concerned to try to look for solution, but I don’t think they have hit the right button yet,” Beasley said.

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