Sewage treatment plant to enter mediation process

Melissa Crowe By Melissa Crowe

Sept. 24, 2012 at 4:24 a.m.

The group opposing Victoria's proposed sewage treatment plant and the city officials planning it may reach a truce before a judge hears the case Oct. 8.

Kevin McNary, a member of Concerned Citizens for the Health and Safety of Victoria, has fought the city's $22 million project for three years, saying the plant poses a health risk to residents near the site on Hand Road and Odem Street.

Tuesday, he asked the City Council for a chance to mediate, under one condition: The council agrees to a "cease-fire" on the case.

City officials, however, called it a "delaying tactic," and while they agreed to mediate, they would keep the Oct. 8 deadline.

"Quite a few of the City Council members have made it a point to say they wanted mediation," McNary said. "We're asking the council to take a vote to table the project, abate the project or call it a peace treaty for now - however you want to see it."

He said the group left it up to the council.

"Take your vote and decide what you want to do," he said. "We can mediate or we can continue."

Mayor Will Armstrong said the city would like to mediate. Nonetheless, he will not delay the hearing to do so.

"I feel confident that we can work this out before Oct. 8," he said. "To run the cost up through delays is counter-productive to anything the city wants to do."

The issue started in early 2005 when the city's plant operated at 75 percent capacity for three months, triggering a rule that requires planning to begin for expansion.

Because the regional facility is in a flood-protected area, city officials said expansion was not an option. However, a new 4.4 million gallon plant would meet future demand and they could close the 50-year-old plant at Willow Street.

In November 2010, city officials pursued a permit to build. Engineers investigated nine locations across the city, looking at proximity to the Guadalupe River and the floodplain, room to expand, population density, proximity to the $500-per-foot wastewater collection mains on Bottom Road and the regional wastewater plant on U.S. Highway 59.

Eventually, they settled on what has become the controversial 78-acre site off Southwest Ben Jordan Street.

Nine homes are in a 2,000 foot radius of the proposed site.

Phone messages to the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament of Victoria, who have publicly opposed the plan, were not returned.

Armstrong said he understands their concern dates to the 1970s when the city put a dump next to the convent's property on North East Water Street.

"It was the wrong thing to do," Armstrong said. "It was a mistake and it wasn't operated properly."

He was on the council that made the decision.

Rules for opening and operating landfills have tightened, and another situation like the past is not possible, he said.

Their second concern is for their neighbors, Armstrong said.

"The city is going over and above the regulations we're required to do to protect them and their neighbors," he said.

One example is the property line requirement.

The plant's proposed site is 300 feet from the property line. State guidelines require it to be 150 feet from the property line.

Armstrong has met several times with the sisters, members of Concerned Citizens, city staff and the plant's lead engineer to better understand most issues.

However, McNary and other members are holding off on agreeing to mediate.

Henry Perez, a member of the group, said they "wanted to shut the case down and sit and talk seriously."

"We don't know yet whether we'll meet them or not," he said. "We might not ... We're going to have to vote on it and decide. Probably not."

McNary questioned why the City Council continues "to play games," when Concerned Citizens approached them about mediation.

"If we're going to mediate, then we shouldn't be trying to work on the case and mediate at the same time. They understand that," he said, later adding, "Even in wars, you have a temporary cease-fire to reach a peace treaty."

McNary said he cannot imagine anyone wanting a sewage treatment plant across the street from their home.

He said Concerned Citizens has a strong case and is ready for court if that is where it winds up.

City Councilman Emett Alvarez, a member of Concerned Citizens, said he is working toward mediation.

"Concerned Citizens had to warm up to that idea," he said. "There's millions of dollars at stake here. We're at this point - I guess they (city officials) don't feel that delaying any more is necessary."

Mediation could address any odor concerns, visual concerns or issues with access to the facility, he said.

"The only resolution some see is to relocate the facility," Alvarez said. "The city's not going to relocate."

He said both sides need to compromise.

"I'd rather see the funds go to the facility rather than legal fees," he said.

Armstrong said he is confident the city will win the hearing if it goes before a judge in October.

Although, if the case goes before the judge, it is likely any decision will be appealed, which would add more time and expenses, he said. Mediation gives both parties a chance to negotiate the plan.

"I feel very certain that the majority of council will vote to move it (the project) forward and will accept any mediation that the two lawyers propose," Armstrong said. "There's no reason to run up legal fees and take this any further. We have a strong case, but we would like to avoid the hearing."

Councilman Joe Truman agreed.

He said the city has spent enough money - $75,000 - so far on legal fees. Those funds come from water and sewer fees, not tax dollars.

"We need to get everyone to the table," he said. "It can be settled in a day. As long as they bring reasonable requests, we're willing to work with them ... If we win, there's no negotiating."

A start-date or location for the mediation has not yet been set, said City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz.

"At this point, the ball's in their court," Gwosdz said. "We've been asking for months, essentially since the day this was originally assigned to the contested case hearing. We've never gotten them to the table."

He said it will be a standard mediation with both sides' attorneys, a representative from each side and an impartial mediator.

It will not be an open meeting, and the public cannot attend.



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