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Plant expansion in time for new apartments

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tennessee's prohibition against new sewer connections here had two Lewisburg businessmen concerned about its limit on city growth, so last week they asked the Water and Wastewater Board about it.

Lewisburg Industrial Development Board Chairman Eddie Wiles and Bill Marsh, both leaders of First Commerce Bank, were told the $13 million expansion of the city's sewage treatment plant should be completed within 18 months.

That's plenty of time for another business planning to build apartments for senior citizens who qualify for rent subsidy vouchers from the Lewisburg Housing Authority under regulations promulgated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Marsh.

Friday, he was asked how he felt about the answer he got from the utility's leadership.

"I did think that in 18 months that it would be resolved," Marsh replied in a frank discussion about a specific situation that worries others in town.

"But now, if this guy comes in ready to build the low-income apartments, would he want to buy the land?" Marsh asks, trying to put himself in the shoes of someone looking at Lewisburg as a place to invest.

"That's our interest," he candidly said for the financial institution he leads. "But it's not just ours. It's others."

Lewisburg was under a self-imposed moratorium on new sewer connections affecting more than two thirds of the city as a result of an agreement with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Plans to expand the treatment plant were drafted in the first half of the last decade. There have been state delays. Anti-pollution regulations have increased to deal with stormwater here. An environmentally conscious governor has come and gone. Federal requirements remain. Last year the moratorium was expanded to include the entire city.

The complete moratorium came with another schedule for compliance.

The engineer also appealed to TDEC asking that the moratorium be lifted once plans and specifications for the Wastewater Treatment Plant improvements were approved by TDEC.

"The moratorium can only be lifted when the (treatment plant's) capacity is sufficient," TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said Monday.

Water and Wastewater Superintendent Kenneth Carr told Marsh and Wiles the utility's consulting engineer has complied with the new order so Lewisburg may avoid civil penalties.

The prospect of paying money to the state agency immediately got Mayor Barbara Woods' attention last year. She was at the monthly meeting of the utility board on Thursday for that and other reasons.

"They served me with it, so I read it seriously," Woods said, then asking if a Jan. 5 deadline had been met.

TDEC orders are like a daisy-chain knot. Pulling one loose, starts to untie others and Carr told Woods that "A response was mailed Dec. 22 to respond to the Jan. 5 due date."

The mayor was relieved and reflected on her reaction to the TDEC notice.

"When the city gets a notice," she said, "that a fine is due..."

"The heart," utility attorney Dan Whitaker interjected, "flutters."

The flutter gained downhill momentum as Wiles told the utility board, "Kenneth [Carr] and I have talked about 50 acres on Highway 50. With a moratorium on [sewer] taps, it's been brought to our attention that it can't be developed."

Wiles was as candid during the public utility meeting Thursday as Marsh was Friday on the telephone.

They "have a prospect for a pretty substantial ... commercial development," Wiles said. "That's what has our interest..." They attended Thursday's meeting to "see if the moratorium can be released."

"What," Marsh asked, "has to be done... to get the matter resolved?"

City Council intervention was suggested by Marsh as a possible avenue toward progress. Carr didn't comment on that.

In April, TDEC was told the city received the order with a schedule to expand the treatment plant. Since then, the council increased water and sewer rates to cover the repayment cost of borrowed money to pay for the $13 million project.

And now utility calculations show the plant, as currently operated, has capacity for 883 more "average customers," Carr said.

TDEC's spokeswoman said, "If they submit a request to add flow to the system, such as apartment buildings, they will need to coordinate with the department to do so. I believe conversations with the city's consultant are ongoing..."

Greg Davenport of J.R. Wauford & Co., the utility's consulting engineer, has spoken with TDEC Clean Water Division Director Paul Davis requesting review of plant expansion plans, Carr said.

"We don't know if he will give us relief until we get the wastewater treatment plant expanded," Carr said.

A sewer is near the property that's seen as a potential place for apartments, he said.

"The problem is, I can't sell a sewer tap," Carr said.

That's because of the moratorium, but discussion showed the apartment developer probably wouldn't need sewer service for about 18 months. The property's not sold yet.

"Hopefully, we'll get some word from Davis," Carr said, counseling patience.

He did, however, ask those present if they knew the difference between a public servant and a bureaucrat. His rhetorical answer: One knows many ways to say no. The other knows a way to say yes.

As Wiles sought some indication of support from the utility board for the apartment project, Carr reviewed state review requirements for the engineering plans as well as review of the city's application for a very low interest loan from the state revolving fund for such projects.

Carr anticipates construction could start in June for the plant expansion.

"It's going forward," he said. "We've been moving forward for well over two years."

Marsh asked if "political squeezing" would help or hurt.

"I don't know," Carr replied. "It can't get any worse."

Friday, Marsh said he planned to speak with State Rep. Eddie Bass (D-Prospect), who represents Marshall County, if he could obtain information on progress for state approval of the plant expansion design.