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Water project moves ahead

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Thomasson abstains from voting on Camp 24 property transfer

By John Barnhart

    The Bedford Regional Water Authority’s (BRWA) plans to build a new water treatment plant and send Smith Mountain Lake water, treated at this plant, to Bedford and Forest moved one step closer to becoming a reality Monday night.
    The Bedford County Board of Supervisors approved the transfer of 69 acres from the former Camp 24 site to BRWA. The transfer stipulates that BRWA must reimburse the county for expenses the county incurred at the site after the Blue Ridge Regional Jail handed the former minimum security jail over to the county after it closed the jail. But one supervisor, Bill Thomasson, abstained from the vote after participating in the discussion.
    “Camp  24  belongs  to  the residents of Bedford and does not belong to outside interests,”  Greg Modzelewski, who opposes the water project, said at a public hearing that preceded the supervisors’ action.
    Modzelewski said a market analysis should be done on the property and BRWA should be required to pay the full market price for the land.
    “This deal needs to be tabled and a whole lot of study given to what we are doing here,” said Ruby Wells Dooley.
    M. C. Davis spoke in favor of the project.
    “We’ve got to provide backup water to the town of Bedford,” he said.
    Davis, however, wants the county to own the plant and water lines and opposes involvement of the Western Virginia Water Authority (WVWA). BRWA is in negotiations with WVWA for a cost sharing deal to pay for building the water treatment plant.
    District 1 Supervisor Bill Thomasson asked Key to make sure the language of an eventual agreement would not allow WVWA to acquire ownership of the plant. Thomasson wants BRWA to retain ownership.
     Brian Key, the BRWA’s director, said it may become more cost effective for WVWA to own 55 percent of the plant and the language Thomasson is asking for would prevent that from happening.
    “It might limit the effectiveness of the plant,” Key said, although he said projections indicate that the greatest need for water from the plant will be in the Bedford area. He also said the up-front costs of the project will be higher without a WVWA buy-in.
    Key said the Water Authority is still in negotiations with Lynchburg to buy water for the Forest area. Key said Lynchburg has offered a lower rate, but it would still cost more for BRWA to buy water from Lynchburg than to treat water itself. Key said this is because Lychuburg’s water department uses a conventional water treatment plant. The Camp 24 plant, like BRWA’s High Point plant, will be a fully automated plant employing advanced technology.
    District 2 Supervisor Curry Martin was concerned that some county residents could become subject to mandatory hookup and monthly user fees, even if they don’t hook up to the water line.
    “I don’t want this to be an ObamaCare where you have to take it whether you want it or not,” Martin said.
    “I don’t think a non-user fee is something we are even talking about,” Key said.
    However, Key said BRWA will still have the same policy that the old Public Service Authority (PSA) had. Under that policy people who have the option to hook onto a line cannot drill a new well if their current well goes dry; they have to connect to the water line. Key said this was required under the terms of loans the PSA got from the Virginia Resource Authority. Abandoning the mandatory connect policy would violate the terms of these loans, making them immediately payable. He said the BRWA, which inherited the PSA’s obligations, still has between 10 and 12 years of payments left on these loans.
    Key added that any loans BRWA gets form public sources to finance the new water project will also require a mandatory hookup policy. He said BRWA could avoid this by getting loans from non-public sources, but this would be more expensive and result in customers not being treated equally.
    Thomasson was also concerned that county citizens could end up on the hook for the project’s debt because current BRWA negotiations with WVWA call for a buy-in over time. Key replied that Bedford County will have no moral obligation on bonds for the project.
    District 5 Supervisor Steve Arrington supported the property transfer.
    “The real estate we are talking about transferring was gifted to Bedford County,” he said. “Part of what we want to do is provide infrastructure.”
    He said the county will have to provide infrastructure if it wants to attract business. He made a motion to approve the transfer. His motion passed on a 5-1-1 vote with Martin voting no and Thomasson abstaining, without explaining the reason for his abstention.
    Board Chairman John Sharp questioned whether Thomasson could legally abstain. He said that, in order for a supervisor to abstain he can’t materially participate in the discussion of the issue that is being voted on.
    “Clearly, you have materially participated in the discussion,” Sharp said to Thomasson.
    Thomasson still insisted on abstaining.
    Martin said he voted no because all the citizens from his district, who called him, opposed the transfer. He said he must represent the citizens.
    The supervisors also voted to remove a septic tank pump out requirement from the county’s short term rental ordinance. They also eliminated the requirement for county staff to inspect them.
    District 7 Supervisor Tammy Parker had opposed the septic tank inspection and pump out requirement. She said, at the supervisors’ last meeting in January, that the health department did not require septic tank inspections and pump outs and she questioned the county’s authority, in light of that, to require them.
    Monday night, County Attorney Carl Bogges, in response to the supervisors request for a legal opinion, said that state law gives localities the authority to regulate septic tank pump outs.
    “The language in this ordinance is clearly legal,” Boggess said. “You certainly have the right to do that.”
    At this point, Parker said that requiring septic tank pump outs for short term rental property, while not requiring all property owners to do this, is biased.
    “I think this is not a fair regulation to impose,” she said. “I don’t think it’s right to say, if you rent your house, you have to have an inspection and pump out.”
    Martin replied that all the properties affected are in Districts 1 and 2 and the people who own them want the regulation to stay in place.
    “I don’t know what the big uproar about this is because the majority in District 1 and 2 want this ordinance in place,” said Thomasson.
    The short term rental regulation was part of a larger modification to the subdivision ordinance and Parker said she wanted it pulled out in order to vote on it separately. Thomasson amended her motion to put it back in. Thomasson’s amendment failed on a 3-4 vote with Thomasson, Martin and District 3 Supervisor Steve Wilkerson voting for it and Sharp, Parker, Arrington and District 6 Supervisor Annie Pollard voting against it.
    The supervisors then unanimously approved the rest of the subdivision ordinance modifications, then returned to short term rentals. Parker moved to remove the septic tank pump out requirement and her motion passed 4-3 with Sharp, Parker, Arrington and Pollard voting in favor and Thomasson, Martin and Wilkerson voting against it.