Water Committee in the dark on intake
by Anna Oakes
Boone Water Use Committee members on Wednesday pressed town staff for more information about the ongoing water intake project, saying they don't know enough to make informed recommendations.
Several committee members requested a schedule or list of the remaining steps to be taken to complete the project, which is planned to draw up to 4 million gallons of water per day from an intake near Todd to be transmitted along Brownwood Road and U.S. 421 back to Boone. Boone has been planning for a new water source since 2005.
"I would love to see that for this water intake project -- to find out what it is we're actually going to be facing," said committee member Patrick Beville. "The plan has been delayed, but the plan has not been expressed to this committee. The answers have been so vague."
In previous Water Use Committee meetings this year, town manager Greg Young and Public Utilities Department Director Rick Miller have alluded to ongoing obstacles related to the project but have provided few details about the project's current status to committee members or the media.
"It would be really good if we could get some more information as a committee about what some of those obstacles are," said committee member Pam Williamson, who introduced the subject during a discussion on the town's water ordinance, which is set to expire at the end of this year. "It's really hard to make sound decisions without all the information. I feel like we're flying blind on it, and I haven't always felt like that."
Added committee member Emily Bish, "As a new member, I have no clue where this is going."
Miller said that at this point he estimates the project is three or four years away from completion. He indicated that he is reluctant to publicly outline any steps that could further obstruct or challenge the project.
"My hesitancy is, when we've laid that out in the past, someone's beat me down to the road and created that obstacle," Miller said.
Town attorney Sam Furgiuele said the project is complicated because "it's not just the town taking action -- (there are) other potential players in what has to be done to get the project built. You can't really predict what other people will do."
But Beville suggested that potential challenges should not preclude the town from discussing the project more openly.
"It's called a critical path method for a reason," he said. "There's always stuff that comes up in these types of projects."
Committee member Tim Wilson specifically asked about the process of securing right-of-way for the water transmission line along Brownwood Road.
Emails between town staff members, project engineers and N.C. Department of Transportation officials in 2008 show there have been questions about whether the line can be constructed within NCDOT's existing right-of-way on Brownwood Road. NCDOT confirmed that it claims right-of-way "by virtue of maintenance" for 18 feet on either side of the Brownwood Road center line -- but NCDOT "technically does not have a deeded right-of-way," said Brian Tripp of engineering firm W.K. Dickson.
"In the past with other clients, we have constructed utilities in DOT's claimed maintenance ROW for these clients with the understanding that if the property owner balks at the construction, the client might have to obtain an easement from the property owner," Tripp said in a 2008 email to Miller and Young.
Tripp sought guidance from the town attorney and direction on whether to pursue construction within NCDOT's maintenance right-of-way or under the road lanes.
"Have we got a right-of-way problem?" Wilson asked Miller on Wednesday. "Is there a right-of-way we can use there?"
"DOT has the right-of-way on Brownwood Road," Miller said.
"Enough to put a water line through?" Wilson asked.
"You're putting me on the spot," Miller replied.
Questioned further by Wilson, Miller acknowledged that "all the water line is not planned to be in the road" and that there is "hostility from property owners to provide any right-of-way outside of the pavement."
At a May 1 meeting of the committee, Boone Town Councilwoman Jamie Leigh asked if the town had obtained all of the easements and land it needed for the project, adding, "Those could be huge costs."
In 2008, 73 percent of Boone voters approved a $25 million bond referendum to finance a new intake. The town has secured a $20.5 million loan and $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund the project and has spent about $1 million to date in engineering and other costs, Young said earlier this year.
"It's probably going to exceed that now," Miller said at a June 11 Water Use Committee meeting, referring to the $25 million figure.
Boone Town Councilwoman Lynne Mason said Wednesday that she shared the committee's frustrations about the project and its delays.
picked the site that had the best opportunity to meet the future water needs of Boone and also to
be good steward of the New River. I can't emphasize this enough. We did not want to compromise
Ashe County's ability to draw water in the future," Mason said. "Unfortunately there's been so
much misinformation out there about this that it's added to the obstacles that we're facing. The
delays that we have encountered have added to the costs of this project."