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First Utility challenged by citizens’ group
Group requests FUD studies, documents

Doors were left open to the First Utility District’s boardroom in order to accommodate the some 50 citizens who attended the Board of Commissioner’s monthly meeting Monday, Aug. 23.

The issue, which has gathered steam over the last weeks, deals with the utility’s plans to expand the Turkey Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. The board was to hear an update on the acquisition of land required to accommodate the growth. FUD filed suit last week in Knox County court to condemn the more than 18 acres of land, known as Callaway’s Landing, from the Ralston family.

Comments over the acquisition of land was one of the concerns addressed by the spectators but they also posed questions about public safety, development, growth into Loudon County and means to pay for the expansion.

Answering most of the questions was Ralph McCarter, FUD general manager.

The first to speak was Charles VanBeke, the lawyer representing the Ralston family. He cited a letter sent to the utility requesting such information regarding permits and engineering studies. According to VanBeke, the letter received no response.

“Some may characterize this as an arrogance of power,” he said. He questioned why FUD did not send a representative to the recent community meeting organized to inform the public of the expansion.

“It was premature to answer questions,” McCarter said. “There is no merit for us to go into those public meetings … You don’t get to make your presentation. You get eggs thrown at your back. Tonight is the time and place.”

The citizens group took the opportunity to address the board. Discussion slated for 15 minutes and from one representative speaker grew to more than an hour with several audience members making comments and posing questions.

David Swindell, president of the Concord Hills homeowners association, asked that the board keep the citizens updated about what the plant expansion means to the community.

According to McCarter, with plant expansion, FUD should double its number of customers in 20 years.

Marvin L. Walton, president of the Board of Commissioners, cited Concord Hills subdivision as an example of a developer who didn’t ask for public sewage until their alternate system failed. Walton, who lives in Sugarwood, said FUD is recognized as one of the best utility companies in the state “technically and financially. One of the reasons we’re financially successful is because of the growth.”

Jim Petrone addressed the board with concerns about the cost of expansion and the growth of which Walton spoke. “Our community is not best served by overcrowding schools and congesting roads,” he said. Petrone cited the recent rezonings and the need for a new high school.

McCarter who said he has lived in the area since 1964 has watched the area grow. “You need to camp on MPC’s door, not ours,” McCarter said about development concerns. “The West end is the place of choice for businesses and homes,” he added. As far as development, he said, “We’re way down there on the chain…. we have the burden to provide service.”

Bill Threlkeld commented he hoped the utility was “spending money wisely.”

McCarter said the expansion of the plant would not generate a rate increase.

Mike Mitchell from the Citizens for Responsible Growth and Development has questioned the expansion as well as the utility’s current location.

“This plant is in a bedroom community that keeps growing,” he said. Mitchell was concerned about condemning land before environmental studies have been conducted.

“Don’t we have the cart before horse?” he asked. He addressed the possibility of sinkholes in the proposed site.

“Sinkholes are old hat to us,” McCarter said. “Safety is a non-issue here.”

Mitchell continued. “What if ‘Billy Backhoe’ hits a water main like he was trained to do and he accidentally activates a sinkhole?”

Mitchell asked if the utility had considered newer technologies. McCarter answered that the technology he spoke of had “no ability to handle rain events,” one of FUD’s reasons for expansion.

McCarter cited examples in Sevierville where rain events have caused continual flooding in the past.

He said the expansion will deal with hydraulic flows and odor, another issue addressed at the meeting. “It won’t get rid of odor, but will decrease it,” McCarter said. Conversely, not expanding will cause serious overload and the odor will get worse.

“If [odor] had an easy answer, I assure you it would be fixed,” he said.

The 50-year-old utility has dealt with regulation problems in the past, having experienced a five-year moratorium, whereby no new customers could connect. One reason he said that FUD looked toward leaders in the industry with “plants under their belt” for future plant design.

“We cannot design the plant by committee,” he said in response to the resolution the Knox County Commission adopted in its meeting Monday morning. The resolution urged a compromise between FUD and the public.

FUD attorney Louis Crossley said he believed the utility had met the spirit of the resolution. “Whether there’s a compromise to be made, I don’t know,” he said.

McCarter addressed the issue of FUD expanding to service Loudon County customers. He said Loudon County customers made up 20 out of 26,000 total customers.

“Loudon County is not a driver. It never will be,” McCarter said.

Janice Hall asked the board to take into consideration the historical value of the property to be condemned. “These places have been here so long,” she said. “Can’t you save something?”

Sallie Ralston, one of the Callaway’s Landing property owners, addressed the board. She noted how the proposed basins along Concord Road will make the existence of the sewage plant obvious. “Everyone will know it’s there,” she said and added concern over lowering property values.

Garry Strand asked if the board would withhold condemnation until environmental testing had been completed. His question received no comment from the board.

“We can finish this without any public input,” McCarter said.

Wayne Watson, assistant manager at FUD, said Tuesday after the meeting, “We are proceeding along on the next step.”

The next step moves this issue from the public forum into a court of law.

Lee Johnson, spokesperson for the Ralstons and husband to one of the landowners, said the family intends to file a countersuit against the condemnation. He said he will appear for a court date on Sept. 3.


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