Water project


Over 100 members of the public, not counting county staff and media, packed the circuit courtroom for the public hearings on the two permits – one to allow the James River Water Authority (JRWA) to build a raw water supply system near Columbia, and the other to allow the Louisa County Water Authority (LCWA) to construct a raw water pipeline through Fluvanna land to Louisa.

On Nov. 4, Supervisor Mike Sheridan announced that he would recuse himself from the LCWA water vote because the pipeline was proposed to run through his property.  Because he would be financially compensated for the easement, he sensed a conflict of interest were he to cast a vote.  His public stance on whether he could vote for the JRWA project has been unclear.  Sheridan was absent from the day’s meetings due to significant health issues that he said in an email to supervisors would keep him away from the Board until perhaps next March.

Sheridan’s absence and recusal has greatly changed the dynamic of the Board.  Before, if Supervisors Don Weaver and Bob Ullenbruch were to vote against water projects, they could be outnumbered by the votes of Sheridan and Supervisors Tony O’Brien and Mozell Booker.  Now, however, tied votes have become much more likely, and any motion that receives a tied vote fails.

First on the agenda was the JRWA project, which includes a water intake facility on the Point of Fork where the James and Rivanna Rivers meet near Columbia, and a raw water pipeline stretching a little over a mile to Rt. 6.  The cost of the project is estimated to be about $8 million to $10 million, and would be jointly shared by Fluvanna and Louisa.  Fluvanna would finance its share of the costs, resulting in an annual debt service for 30 years of about $275,000 – an amount supervisors referred to throughout the night as being roughly equal to about “half a penny on the tax rate.”

So far Fluvanna has spent $537,000 on the JRWA project, a total which County Administrator Steve Nichols said does not take into account two years’ worth of staff time.

The second hearing concerned the LCWA project, which consists of a 12.5-mile pipeline from the JRWA line through Fluvanna into Louisa, a water treatment plant near Ferncliff, and a pipeline from there to Zion Crossroads.  The cost of that project would be borne by Louisa.

As part of an interjurisdictional agreement signed by both counties, the LCWA, and the JRWA, Louisa has agreed to provide Fluvanna with 400,000 gallons per day of treated water at Zion Crossroads by the end of 2018.

But the water projects have been fraught with controversy, both because of their expense and because of the selection of the historic Point of Fork as the JRWA’s intake location.  A “save the point” campaign, led by Point of Fork landowner Barbara Seay, sprang up in recent months with the aim of convincing supervisors to deny the special use permit necessary for construction.

At the hearings, Nichols explained why the JRWA settled on the Point of Fork, stating that the location is cost efficient as compared to other options, makes it easier to use existing easements, has “excellent” hydrologic and geologic conditions, and impacts fewer landowners.  The Department of Environmental Quality has already issued a permit for the Point of Fork.  Changing the permit would be a costly and time-consuming process, he said.

Calling the proposed route the “ideal” route in Fluvanna, Nichols said, “There may be [other] physical locations along this river that could have been used, but they all represent dozens more landowners impacted on the routes, increased costs, you’d have to start over on the process to pick anything else, and it may be double the cost.”

Home to Rassawek, capital city of the Monacan Indians, and the Revolutionary War Point of Fork arsenal, the land selected for the intake station may contain historic artifacts that could hinder the project and, at worst, be destroyed by it.

Showing a map from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources that smeared the James River with colored dots denoting historic locations, Nichols said that there aren’t many places along the James River that would be free of historic concerns, given that people used to settle along water ways.

During the JRWA public hearing, 21 people spoke.  One claimed neutrality while 11 spoke against the project and 9 supported it.

“I’m a taxpaying citizen in this county,” said Seay, who has publicly declared her unwillingness to sell her land to the county and her anger at the idea of having it taken from her.  “No matter how much reclamation you claim you can do [to restore the site], you’ll never put it back to how it was.”

Kathy Swenson Miller took a different view, asking supervisors if their vision for the county’s future included “annual bickering” over tax increases to try to keep afloat the school system, sheriff’s office, and fire and rescue, or if they were willing to invest in infrastructure as a foundation for welcoming businesses, and eventually tax relief for homeowners, into the community.

As supervisors began their deliberations, O’Brien asked, “Of the many [water] plans that we’ve examined, is it fair to say that this one has…the minimal impact on the taxpayer as far as bringing substantial quantities of water into the county?”

“Staff has not found over the last four years any possible permutation that would be a better long-term water source than this one,” replied Nichols.

Bobby Popowicz, director of community development, told supervisors that about a month ago Fluvanna missed an opportunity to grab a brewery due to lack of water.  If Fluvanna had the 75,000 gallons per day of water that the Zion Crossroads water system would bring in if it moves forward, then Fluvanna could have been a “competitive” location.  “We’ve missed in the last two years probably about 14 opportunities, just from the state alone,” he said.

The interjurisdictional agreement binding Fluvanna to the water projects was signed by the Fluvanna Board of Supervisors in 2013.  The agreement requires supervisors to “take all necessary and legally permissible steps to make sure the James River pipeline and its facilities are and remain permitted under its zoning ordinances.”

“There’s been a lot of discussion about whether this project is a good idea,” said County Attorney Fred Payne.  “And that’s not really the subject of this discussion.  This is a zoning hearing.  And the issue is not whether the county is going to make money or the county is going to generate jobs.  Those are very important questions – but not for this hearing.”

Given that passing special use permits is a requisite step in making the project’s zoning work, Payne asked, “Do we have an obligation [to pass the permits]?  In my opinion we do have an obligation.  The point is that this obligation was undertaken by the Board of Supervisors in 2013.  I’m not going to comment on whether if Louisa isn’t happy with our performance we would get sued…but I will say that…when you entered into this contract that ship left the harbor.  The train left the station.”

Ullenbruch argued that the contract specifies an intake point in the Columbia area but not necessarily at the Point of Fork.

“The JRWA is the applicant and it has chosen this site,” responded Payne, “so the issue is not whether you, the Board, might have chosen a different position.”

“What are we going to do with the debt that we have?” asked Weaver.  “We want to add another $10 million to it… I say you crawl before you walk.  But [for some people] it has to be grandiose.  Some of the people are just making it from paycheck to paycheck – have we forgotten that?… That’s the attitude of government anymore – do it longer, stretch it out [via debt service], and make your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren pay for all this.”

“You’re acting as if you’re saving the taxpayer dollar by not doing something today,” responded O’Brien.  “But the reality is not doing this today will cost the taxpayer a lot more money down the road… We might be sued and have to pay for it and get nothing from it.  Is that smart?  Is it smart when we put the reputation of the county on the line because we break business deals?  Spend half a cent [on the tax rate] right now…to solve long-term water and infrastructure needs for our county for generations to come… That is as good a deal as you will ever see.”

Booker talked about how the county has tried to save money through the years by building what she said proved to be inadequate facilities.  For example, when the county built the middle school it tried to save money, she said, and as a result there were trailers out back within two years.  They had to build an addition to the school, Booker said, and it ended up costing more than if they had built a larger school to begin with.  “Now we have the opportunity to bring water to this county,” she said.  “Let’s not deprive Fluvanna County of this opportunity.  We’ve done it too many times – pushing things back.  It’s not kicking the can down the road – we just pick it up and throw it as hard as we can.”

When it was his turn, Ullenbruch declined to explain his impending vote.

The vote to approve the JRWA special use permit failed 2-2.  Booker and O’Brien voted for the motion and Weaver and Ullenbruch voted against it.

With the JRWA project at a standstill, the public hearing and deliberations over the LCWA proceeded much more quickly.  O’Brien was the only supervisor who spoke before the vote, saying the project came at no cost to Fluvanna.  “We have no grounds under which to deny this motion,” he said.

When no one seconded his motion, O’Brien asked Booker to call for the vote.  She did, and the vote was taken without a second.  It also failed 2-2, with all supervisors voting as they did before.

“I think the Board has made an enormous mistake,” said O’Brien after the meeting.  “I think we have given up on an opportunity to bring real change to our county.  I think that we will regret this for many, many years to come.  I think it’s going to prove to be extremely short-sighted, and very costly to the county.”

Ullenbruch declined to comment.  Weaver simply said, “It’s not necessarily a happy time, but it’s a time that we had to make a hard decision.”

Booker said, “This was a very sad day for Fluvanna County.  I kind of had a feeling that it was going to go this way, but you always have that hope, and you always think maybe people will change.  But they didn’t, and I’m not surprised, unfortunately.”


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