By Jesse Wood
Sept. 26, 2013. While long-time opponents of the Town of Boone’s proposed water intake project, such as Frank Packard of Todd, have long criticized the town for more transparency on the project and its progression to date, members of the Water Use Committee continually pressed staff on the issue for more information when the Boone Town Council/Water Use Committee met last night.
“I feel like we are flying blind,” committee member Pam Williamson said, adding that she hasn’t always felt that way, especially when the town didn’t face so many obstacles to the project.
As members noted last night, the town has been working towards an intake for about 10 years now. In 2008, town voters approved a $25-million bond referendum for a new intake system, garnering 73 percent support for the project. And two years later, the Boone Town Council accepted a $20.5-million loan from the USDA to finance the project.
When the votes were cast, the project was expected to take five years, but obstacles and hurdles at nearly every step of the way weren’t expected. For example, Ashe County officials declined to sign off on a required flood-mapping document to the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) because Boone didn’t notify Ashe County that it was financing an access road, which is located in Watauga County but passes through Ashe County, to the area of the intake facility.
Now five years later, Rick Miller, the public utilities director with the town, projects that a completed intake is at least three to fours years out, and Council Member Andy Ball regretted that while he didn’t have a “tangible, realistic estimate,” he said another five years is the timeframe the committee should be looking at.
An agenda items on Wednesday night, members discussed the expiration of Ordinance 11-01, which has controlled the amount of water allocated to new projects in the town since Jan. 1, 2008. The ordinance is set to expire at the end of this year because, as Miller as said in the past, the intake was expected to be completed by then – at which point the ordinance would be unnecessary.
After Miller addressed the committee members about Ordinance 11-01 and said that a decision on the ordinance needs to be made before the end of the year, committee member Patrick Beville asked Miller three questions: Where does the water intake stand right now? How long will it take to complete? What are the hurdles?
“Several hurdles will have to be addressed,” Miller said. “If we keep pursuing the water intake, we must extend the ordinance. If not, so be it.”
Boone Town Council Member Lynne Mason then asked Miller how long the intake system would take to come online after all the permits are granted. Miller noted that it would take less than three years to construct all the pipes, build the facility, pump station and so forth.
Committee members such as Williamson noted that it’s difficult to make informed decisions if those on the committee are not informed. Williamson added that she understood that an exact timeframe isn’t necessarily realistic because of unforeseen obstacles.
“I want to say again that it’s really good to get more information as a committee on what some of the obstacles are. If we can’t get it, we can’t get it,” Williamson conceded. “But I still have concerns proceeding without more information … It’s really tough to make decisions on things [ of such] importance. We are looking to represent all the people in the town and their money, and it’s hard to make sound decisions without all the information.”
Beville, who is an engineer, noted that one reason for the delayed process – from a “project manager’s perspective” – is that either the project doesn’t have a plan or the plan hasn’t been privy to the committee members.
“In my project management experience, we have a schedule with line items for every critical task. I would love to see that for the water intake project. What exactly are we facing and what is the anticipated timeline?” Beville said. “Obviously, I’ll not hold you to hours and minutes and seconds. Just say I’ve got to get this permit. I have to get this property under wraps. I see that a couple dozen little items need to be addressed. When questions are asked, answers have been so vague in the past.”
As for the timeline, Miller said, “I said five years ago it would be done, and it’s still isn’t done. How can I look you in the eye [and answer]? I don’t know what [obstacles we’ll face] in the future.”
Beville retorted that he wasn’t asking about the unknowns. He was inquiring about what is known.
Town Attorney Sam Furgiuele said that the complication with the obstacles is that these aren’t hurdles created by the town but are actions of “other potential players.” He added that it’s difficult to create a timeline for resolving issues that other people created.
Beville said he disagreed with Furgiuele’s assessment and said that he worked on $300 million projects from the planning to the design to the permits – “all the way through.” The town’s water intake is not different from that point of view, Beville said.
Furgiuele said he disagreed with Beville’ assessment by saying that he doubted projects that Beville worked on met as much opposition as Boone’s proposed intake.
Williamson noted that if a timeline wasn’t available to committee members, could staff give them at least an itemized list of what needs to be accomplished, an itemized list of known obstacles the town needs to hurdle in order to complete the project?
Miller looked at Town Manager Greg Young, who, too, has been reluctant to offer explicit details in the past, and said that when staff has “laid that out in the past, people have gone down the road and threw obstacles in the road.”
“If you don’t know,” Miller said, “you might go down the wrong road.”
Committee member Tim Wilson, while stating that he understood that acquisitions needed to be kept secret initially, began asking specific questions about the topic of right-of-ways needed for the project along Brownwood Road for the transmission line.
Beville interjected that he didn’t need to know names or exact locations. Beville said – as an example – something along the lines of “Just say three properties are needed in the next year.”
Miller said he would rather not discuss in details the potential acquisitions because that would affect the price the town would have to pay for the property.
Wilson asked, “Which road are you going to use?”
Miller said the plan all along was to come along Brownwood Road and that the N.C. Department of Transportation had a right of way on Brownwood Road. Wilson then questioned Miller on the width of right-of-way and if would be enough to put a water line through.
Miller said he was being put on the spot and didn’t answer the question directly, to which Wilson replied, “See, we can’t get a straight answer.”
Williamson interjected that perhaps individual members could put questions in writing and send those to staff members.
Wilson said that he would like to get an answer to question without a question in return.
Miller then responded that the entire waterline isn’t supposed to be in the road and noted that “hostility” towards property owners granting right-of-ways out that way has been expressed in numerous outlets.
“It hampers negotiations with property owners when you bring that to light,” Miller said. “Now, it’s in the light.”
In the end, the committee unanimously voted to suggest any proposed changes to Ordinance 11-01 and send them directly to Miller to provide answers to all the questions to the committee at a future meeting before the ordinance expires.
Check back for more details on Wednesday night’s meeting.