Hamilton County planning panel shoots down controversial sewer plant permit

The Fire Department Training Center in Ooltewah, Tennessee, is completely full of residents who do not want a sewer plant built in their community during a Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority public meeting held Thursday, October 11, 2018. The room was filled from wall to wall with chairs, and individuals were peeking in from all doors to listen to what was happening during the meeting.

Opponents of a proposed Ooltewah sewage treatment plant won one round of their fight Monday as a Hamilton County planning panel recommended denying a special permit for the facility.

But they said they know their work against a Mahan Gap Road treatment plant isn't over, as the proposal now goes to the Hamilton County Commission next month.

"We're not against growth," said Dean Moorhouse, president of North Hamilton County United for Responsible Growth, adding the group still needs to convince the county commission to score a victory.

Meanwhile, the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority, which chose a site at 7800 Mahan Gap as the most cost-efficient location for a 10-million-gallon, $45 million treatment plant, said that siting and approving a new facility is "a tremendous responsibility."

"We know there is a great deal of work ahead of us, but we are confident in the expertise around the table to make the best decision for Hamilton County's future," said Mike Moon, WWTA's board chairman.

Mark Harrison, the agency's executive director, said it is mindful of the cost of services to its customers.

"As we plan for the future, while cost is an issue, it is not the only issue," he said. "We must continue to focus on the welfare of our community as well as the impact on economic development our actions will have both now and in the future."

On Monday, opponents packed the county commission room for the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission meeting, with more than 100 people showing up and many spilling out into the fourth-floor rotunda.

The neighbors say there are 3,500 homes and two elementary schools within two miles of the proposed plant. They are worried about odors, health and environmental impacts and a hit to their property values.

Those doubts have only sharpened since the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation last week said WWTA must stop new sewer connections in Ooltewah because it had 29 sewer overflows that spilled 2 million gallons of raw sewage into Rogers Creek in just one year. That news came as an environmental group sued the authority for releasing 20 million gallons of sewage from the Signal Mountain wastewater treatment plant to the Tennessee River since 2013.

Planning commission staff had recommended deferring for 30 days the consideration of the special permit, citing the issue's complexity. Harrison said at the meeting that he'd like a 60-day deferral to answer more questions raised by neighbors and others.

But County Commissioner Chester Bankston asked that the panel deny, not defer, the permit.

"This is not a good site," he said. "There are other good ones to the north."

More than a dozen people spoke against the permit, including Moorhouse, who said he had 4,400 signatures and more to come.

He claimed WWTA has withheld information and given misleading statements to the Regional Planning Agency.

Debbie Petticord, who lives in the area, termed where she lives "a special place," but not the location for a sewage treatment plant with the growth Ooltewah has seen.

"There's a big difference in the backyards of 40 homes and 4,000 homes," she said about the placement of the proposed facility. "That's a lot of devaluation."

Commission member Jason Farmer said the WWTA is in "a tough spot."

"I understand how you got to the site. I appreciate it," Farmer said.

However, he said, deferring a vote for 30, 60 or 90 days wouldn't make a difference for him.

"This is one of the most active neighborhoods in the county," Farmer said. "To put this on this neighborhood doesn't seem right."

Harrison denied anyone has been misled, but he said he wanted more time to meet with the neighborhood residents, including in small groups. He has said the authority is planning to spend some $200 million to meet Clean Water Act requirements, over and above the cost of the treatment plant.

He called the Mahan Gap Road site "the right spot. It provides the best option."

"It's the lowest cost to construct and operate," Harrison said, adding the new plants "aren't the nuisance they've been painted out to be."

The panel recommended turning down the special permit request in a 6-4 vote, with one recusal.

The county commission's zoning committee will take up the issue on Dec. 12, and the full commission will vote yea or nay on the special permit Dec. 19.

The commission meets at 9:30 a.m. on the fourth floor of the courthouse. Jennifer McDonald, spokeswoman for the concerned citizens group, said the neighbors will be there in force.

"We want people to understand this is not a done deal," she said.

Staff writer Judy Walton contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.