By Jesse Wood
Oct. 24, 2014. A motion by Boone Town Council Member Jennifer Pena to postpone the proposed water intake failed on Thursday evening.
In a prepared statement, Pena said the town should postpone any activity related to the proposed water intake until the lawsuit that the Town of Boone filed against the State of North Carolina earlier this month is settled in the courts. Pena said the town is awaiting a decision by a panel of judges in Raleigh on this matter, and if an appeal of that decision is filed, the N.C. Supreme Court will step up to the plate.
“In light of the current lawsuit to reinstate the town’s ETJ and until the town knows the outcome, it is in the town’s best interest to postpone any further work on the water intake project until a final decision is rendered by the N.C. Supreme Court,” Pena said. “I therefore move that the town suspend all activity on the water intake project until there is a final decision on the ETJ case, and that at that time we re-evaluate the advisability of the project.”
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.. Since then, the town has already spent at least $2 million on the project for property, consulting and engineering fees – and if the project were to be completed, that completion date is still years away.
The Town of Boone will lose control of the ETJ on Jan. 1, 2015, because of Sen. Dan Soucek-sponsored legislation that passed in the N.C. General Assembly this past summer.
Prior to the motion, Pena mentioned about the protections the ETJ afforded neighborhoods from high-impact businesses and the potential for property values to decrease if a high-impact business were to move in or expand close to residential areas.
“Water enables all of these negative developments,” Pena said. “…Without town authority over the ETJ, we will not have the ability to stop rampant high-density development and other potentially negative uses. Water only fuels that.”
She also noted that the project is going to cost more than $25 million and in light of Watauga County Board of Commissioners changing the sales tax distribution method from per capita to ad valorem, the Town of Boone has about $2 million less in its budget. She was also worried that a regional water authority or the state could take over the project once its completed.
“In a time of scarce resources, is it fair to the citizens and taxpayers of Boone that they be the only ones to shoulder the full burden of a project that they may not even be able to control?” Pena asked. “I don’t think so.”
When asked what exactly the postponement entailed, Pena said this included stopping all payments to the engineering firm W.K. Dickson and halting any work associated with the intake project.
Her motion, which failed in a 3-2 vote with only Councilman Fred Hay voting alongside Pena, caught some of the other council members off guard.
“I understand a lot of the concerns, but I don’t know if I can vote in support of this,” Councilwoman Lynne Mason said, noting that she has been involved in this project since the Town of Blowing Rock came to the town in 2004 and requested to purchase water from the town.
She said she wasn’t convinced that the current water that the town has is enough to sustain long-term growth. She expressed concerns about how suspending the project would impact the 40-year guaranteed loan that the town has with the USDA. She also noted environmental concerns if an intake wasn’t built and the water table in the area dropped because of too many wells being drilled.
Town Attorney Sam Furgiuele and Town Manager Greg Young both noted that the town has contractual obligations in “different directions” and any action such as a postponement would have an impact on those obligations. Neither, though, were specific.
Councilman Quint David noted that if the town lost the funding from the USDA because of the suspension of the project, the town could end up spending more money on interest if it had to get a private loan down the road to fund this project. He also talked about the town being liable for not having water if this project was suspended. Quoting from the N.C. League of Municipalities’ website, David said that urban areas are required to provide certain services including water.
Referencing the town’s comprehensive plan in 2006 that mentioned the need for water infrastructure upgrades since 1992, David asked what the liability of the town would be if it halted the project; ignored those warnings; and didn’t have water for residents and potential development in the future.
That questioned went unanswered.
Hay, who sided with Pena, said that a postponement wouldn’t “kill” the project and that the council could reevaluate the issue once the ETJ lawsuit was settled in courts.
This discussion happened on the same night that three members – Frank Packard, Donald Nelson and Marie Nelson – of the New River Advocates, a nonprofit that has been very vocal in its opposition to the water intake project, spoke out against the project in public comment.