A map of the proposed Sarpy County sewer lines.

Sarpy County is poised to lay the underground work that will eventually open up a wide expanse of land to development — residential, commercial and industrial.

The project — installing sewer lines in an area that previously had none — has been a long time coming. Now county leaders hope it keeps Sarpy booming.

After all, without a humble sewer line, there can be no housing subdivisions, mixed-use destinations or data centers. You might say all life in this part of the county will flow from these new sewer lines.

“We’re standing on the precipice of great change in Sarpy County,” said Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly, who sits on the agency overseeing the project.

County leaders now know where they’ll lay the first sewer lines in the southern half of the county. It’s near Nebraska Highway 50 and Capehart Road; south of there, on the outskirts of Springfield; and an area in eastern Sarpy bordered roughly by 72nd and 60th Streets and Capehart and Platteview Roads.

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Today, sewage near Highway 50 is pumped into Omaha’s system. And Springfield has a small treatment plant for its residents. But much of the area has long been without sewer service, and, consequently, without much potential for development.

Why is it so important? Because “we’re quickly running out of developable sites,” said Andrew Rainbolt, executive director of the Sarpy County Economic Development Corp. If a company comes sniffing around the area for a new place to build, it’s not going to consider an area with no sewer. But if there’s a wide expanse of land that’s shovel-ready — complete with sewers — then it could be time to get down to business.

“It’s a really significant start,” Rainbolt said of the project.

Since sewer service first came to the county more than a century ago, it has ended at a “ridge line” — an actual ridge that you can see on the map that splits Sarpy County in two. On one side of the ridge, there’s sewer service just like everywhere else in the metropolitan area. But that infrastructure stops at the ridge, leaving the other side void of sewer services and, so, void of development.

County officials have been studying the issue for nearly a decade. Finally, in 2017, the Sarpy County Wastewater Agency formed with the goal of opening the spigots and finally bring sewer service to the area. It’s a public body comprised of mayors from the county’s five cities and Kelly from the county.

The first phase of the sewer project will open 160 acres for industrial development and 1,760 acres for residential development. Eventually, it’s anticipated to add to the current industrial growth along Nebraska Highway 50, residential development around Springfield and both residential and commercial in the Zweibel Creek Watershed, which is near 72nd and Capehart Roads, south of Papillion.

That phase of the infrastructure is estimated to cost $31 million and won’t be done for five to 10 years. A wait, to be sure, but a short one for leaders who’ve waited for the expansion for decades.

The project will be financed by sewer and connection fees paid by new homeowners and new businesses. Wastewater agency leaders are working with a financial adviser to determine the funding plan. The agency has the ability to levy property taxes, but leaders have said they want to avoid that.

“This was never designed to use taxpayer money, from either the city or county,” Sarpy County administrator Dan Hoins said at a September wastewater agency meeting.

But it won’t just cost money: Boosters say it’s an investment that will only add to the region’s coffers, not to mention provide jobs. A study commissioned by Sarpy County estimates that development south of the ridge line could generate $15 million per year in sales tax revenue for Sarpy’s cities, $21 million a year for the county and $76 million in property tax revenue for local school districts.

Now, developers are salivating at a sewer line that finally will pass the ridge line, allowing development to creep southward into the county.

Developer Jerry Torczon, who has launched multiple Sarpy County subdivisions, said opening up that portion of the county is key to the future of growth in the Omaha area. There’s only so much ground left for development, he said, and that’s mostly limited to northwest Omaha and Sarpy County. The sewer expansion is “very important,” he said.

“It’s an area that we will look at in the future,” he said.

Still, the decision didn’t happen lickety-split. Consultants HDR and Steve Jensen Consulting presented officials with three options for the project’s first phase, which will begin next year.

They looked at population trends, land-use plans, land acquisition and existing infrastructure in the areas — like paved roads. The plan they recommended, which the agency board unanimously adopted, had the lowest initial sewer costs, lowest road-paving costs and will accommodate growth from both Bellevue and Papillion.

And this is just the first step in a 25- to 50-year process. The first phase will lay 7,700 linear feet of trunk sewer, opening up about 1,920 acres to development. Eventually, the entire project will open up roughly 35,000 acres of land to development.

The whole undertaking is estimated to cost $220 million and take up to 50 years to complete.

In the new system, sewage will be treated and channeled into the Platte River on the county’s southern edge. Today, wastewater generated in the southern portion of the county is handled by a handful of small, private treatment facilities or by Springfield’s small facility. Most people living in that area have septic systems.

But soon, no longer.

Already, one developer says he’s got designs on an area where new sewer service will be coming online.

Developer Gene Graves said he was pleased with where the sewer project will begin — he has plans for a 440-acre residential development on 72nd Street and Capehart Road.

Expanding sewer service is integral to the county’s growth, he said, and he believes that growth will come.

“The demand is there,” Graves said. “That’s where people like to live.”

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