Story updated at 8:32 p.m. on Dec. 19
North Ooltewah homeowners were jubilant Wednesday when Hamilton County commissioners voted against allowing a sewage treatment plant on Mahan Gap Road.
A packed crowd cheered and applauded at the 6-3 vote after two months of hard work to stall what many saw as a done deal that could ruin their financial security and their quality of life.
But supporters of the plant said the vote is a big setback both for continued growth and for plans to combat the problem of massive sewage spills from broken or overloaded pumps.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger spoke Wednesday about the need for new sewer capacity in the fastest-growing part of the county.
"You don't want it on Mahan Gap Road, I get that. But if it doesn't go there, it has to go somewhere," Coppinger said.
After the thumbs-down vote, he said, "I will start this afternoon sitting down with [the Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority] and seeing if there's an alternate plan."
He told the Times Free Press borrowing an extra $20 million or more to put the plant elsewhere also might mean a tax increase to pay for debt service.
Combined with a freeze on new sewer connections triggered by sewage overflows, the no vote on the plant could affect plans to open up 20,000 acres in north Hamilton County for residential and commercial development.
J.W. Bell, outgoing president of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Chattanooga, called both a "setback" to providing available and affordable housing.
"As a community, we have to figure out ways to deal with the waste we produce in environmentally sound ways. If politicians are willing to do that, they have to go back to the drawing board," Bell said.
"It's not a choice you can make, not to deal with this — you have to deal with it."
The moratorium affects areas upstream of WWTA's Snow Hill and Rogers Branch pump stations, Kim Schofinksi, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said Wednesday.
Schofinksi said the freeze "will remain in place until the WWTA can verify sufficient excess capacity for new projects in those areas."
WWTA Executive Director Mark Harrison said he doesn't think Rogers Branch is included in the moratorium. He said he's going to work with county commissioners to find another site and more funding for a new plant.
Earlier, Harrison said the WWTA had looked at a dozen or so sites. He said all would be more costly, and waste would have to be collected in storage tanks at Mahan Gap and pumped to the treatment plant, wherever it may be built.
The planned $45 million plant is part of more than $200 million in sewer fixes that are going to be required under a pending federal order for ongoing violations of the Clean Water Act.
Neighbors have objected on a number of grounds, from odors to airborne diseases and environmental damage. Attorney John Cavett on Wednesday told commissioners that TVA covenants in the property deed against dumping pollution could expose the county to an expensive lawsuit.
"There's a lot of people who are very motivated and have money to hire lawyers and perhaps stop this project for years," Cavett said.
WWTA has said its plant will use the latest technology for safety and odor control, and the site will be well-buffered by a thick tree belt.
Chester Bankston, Chip Baker, Randy Fairchild, Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley and Katherlyn Geter voted to deny the special permit for the plant. David Sharpe and Greg Martin voted against denial. Tim Boyd and Warren Mackey passed. When the other votes were counted, Mackey cast his vote to approve the permit and Boyd voted to deny.
Boyd has openly favored the plant. Commission rules allow those on the winning side of a vote to bring the issue up again in the future.
Commissioners appeared swayed by the homeowners' passionate opposition. Baker chided WWTA for lack of communication, and Fairbanks said he'd "not been able to get over the hill" of objections.
Bankston, whose district includes the Mahan Gap Road site, had suggested earlier that Tennessee American Water might be interested in buying out WWTA and taking over county sewer service.
There was more such talk Wednesday. Baker said he's heard that four companies are interested in the system, but Harrison said WWTA has neither invited nor been invited by any private company to talk about a sale, and Coppinger said no one has mentioned it to him, either.
Coppinger said the utility was open to a purchase a few years ago when it was assessing its operations and maintenance, but ultimately decided keeping the authority would save money and control rates and sewer expansion.
Commissioner Tim Boyd praised Coppinger's remarks as "very thorough," triggering a crack from Commissioner Warren Mackey related to the pair's often-testy relationship.
"The stars must be lining up. This is the first day in eight or nine years that the mayor and Commissioner Boyd have agreed on anything," Mackey joked.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.