By Jesse Wood
On Tuesday evening, the Agricultural Advisory Board of the Watauga County Voluntary Farmland Preservation Program held a public hearing regarding the Town of Boone’s intention to condemn farmland within the program for its proposed water intake system.
The board heard from three representatives from the Town of Boone – Town Attorney Allison Meade, Town Manager John Ward and Public Works Director Rick Miller – and more than 15 citizens that oppose the town’s proposed intake system along the South Fork of the New River.
More than 100 people attended the hearing, the vast majority of which opposed the condemnation of the farmland or the town’s proposed water intake system.
The property in question is a 1.81-acre parcel owned by I.S. Cooper, Ronald Cooper and Donald Cooper. The Town of Boone offered $23,700 for a permanent easement over, under and across the parcel. This property is adjacent to 10-acre tract that the Town of Boone bought from the Cooper’s cousins for about $85,000 per acre in 2009.
The Coopers that own the property the Town of Boone’s intends to condemn recently filed a complaint in court in June seeking a permanent injunction against the condemnation and also demanding a required public hearing for the condemnation of qualifying land under the voluntary farmland preservation program.
Following the filing of this complaint, the Town of Boone reached out to the Agricultural Advisory Board of Watauga County and requested the public required by law.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Agricultural Advisory Board Chair Kelly Coffey noted that the Town of Boone must show the need for the project; conduct a financial impact assessment; and prove that it considered alternatives that would be less disruptive to agricultural activities before it could make a favorable recommendation.
Representatives for the Town of Boone spoke first.
Meade, the town’s attorney, said that easement, which is about 50-feet wide, would allow large construction equipment to enter the property and dig a trench to install the waterline and if necessary in the future repair and maintain the infrastructure. She pointed out that the Coopers would be allowed to use the property as it is currently being used.
“Basically, the Coopers can do anything over that land except build a building over the easement area or plant large trees in the easement area,” Meade said. “Basically, that’s it. They will be able to keep farming, using the land as pasture, drive on it or whatever they want to do.”
She said talk from people opposing the water intake project about the town putting a road across the farm is “simply not the case.”
Initially, Meade was explicit in saying that a road wouldn’t be built on the Cooper’s farm, however she quickly modified that by saying that the town does “not anticipate putting a road across the Cooper’s Farm.”
Meade mentioned that at the request of the Coopers during meetings in the past, the Town of Boone agreed to move the easement area so that it would be placed in the floodplain, where it wouldn’t affect more developable property that the Coopers own.
Ward, the town manager, said that the town’s 2004 environmental assessment of the project reviewed by N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources justified the need to acquire an additional 4 million gallons of water per day out of the New River and that the USDA also responded that it supported the project after reviewing the town’s documentation.
Miller, the public works director with the town, said that the W.K. Dickson looked at 27 different alternatives, many of which were weeded out because of the requirement of interbasin transfers.
“The area that seemed the most feasible was between the Todd General Store and the Ashe County line,” Miller said.
Miller noted that he contacted all the property owners in that vicinity about purchasing land for the intake and the reason the 10-acre tract was purchased from the other Coopers was because they were the only property owner to respond to the town’s inquiry.
After the town’s presentation, the other speakers had three minutes a piece to speak in opposition to the project in general or to the issue of condemnation of farmland for the project. A number of speakers noted how shallow the waters have been this summer and wondered what the river would look like if the town withdrew 4 million gallons of water from it in one day.
Just last month, a number of community members in Todd held ad “sit-in” at the river, which was only ankle-deep at the time of the gathering. This was referenced numerous times during the public hearing.
“You are going to have to [do some] wizardry to [withdraw] four million gallons unless the river flows like the last two days all the time,” David Hamm said.
Other speakers noted that they felt like the Town of Boone was attempting to enter the “water business” if the intake becomes operational.
“Let’s let the gorilla out of the room. This is all about development from Deep Gap to Boone,” Tom Pope said.
Frank Packard, who has been fighting this intake project now for several years, focused his talk on numbers. Packard has long maintained that the town’s numbers and different studies or documents, which have been used to justify the need for this intake, don’t add up or are inconsistent and misleading.
For one, he noted that engineer W.K. Dickson’s website states that the Town of Boone needs up to 11 million gallons per day. Currently, the town has the maximum capacity of 3 million gallons per day and is seeking an additional 4 million gallons per day with this intake.
Town documents show that the town estimates that it will need a maximum day total capacity of 7 million gallons of water per day by 2030. W.K. Dickson’s says the 50 year plan expects to top 11 million gallons per day.
Packard also noted that the local water supply plan shows a service area demand in 2030 of 2.75 million gallons per day, meanwhile the town’s Raw Water Supply Project document states a 7 million gallon per day demand years from now.
In a 2009 Raw Water Supply Project plan, the Town of Boone states that it averages 1.9 million gallons per day of water usage from 22,000 people. Packard said that the 1.9 million gallons per day was actually maximum daily demand and not average daily demand. He noted that average daily demand was 1.64 million gallons per day, which would be 54.5 percent of the town’s current capacity.
After each person spoke out against the intake, the audience gave a loud applause.
Kelly Coffey, the chair of the Agricultural Advisory Board, thanked those in attendance for coming out and those who spoke. He noted that the board had 10 days to submit its recommendation to the Town of Boone.
Brian Chatham, a conservation technician with the Water and Soil Conservation Office in Watauga, moderated the public hearing. After the meeting, he said that the Town of Boone only has to take whatever the recommendation is into consideration.