Cooper: Learning 'The Secret of NIMBY'

Cooper: Learning 'The Secret of NIMBY'

December 21st, 2018 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

CORRECTION: Tim Boyd's name has replaced Warren Mackey's in the list of commissioners who voted against the permit.

When it came right down to it, neither Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority (WWTA) personnel nor Mahan Gap Road residents could say with 100 percent accuracy what life would be like in the area if a sewage treatment plant were built nearby.

That lack of knowledge — and there was no way either side ever would know before it was built — prompted the Hamilton County Commission, following on the heels of a similar vote in November by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, to vote 6-3 on Wednesday to deny a permit allowing a sewer plant to be built.

However, commissioners' actions have consequences, perhaps in sooner-than-planned tax increases, likely higher water rates and stagnating housing starts in the fast-growing east end of the county.

Where votes count, though, commissioners against the permit (Chip Baker, Chester Bankston, Randy Fairbanks, Katherlyn Geter, Tim Boyd and Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley) are more likely to be remembered as being on the side of homeowners and less by whether their actions curbed growth or caused anyone's taxes (or fees) to rise if they aren't on record as raising them.

Organized homeowners in the eastern end of the county — at least in one particular area on Mahan Gap Road — may have dodged a bullet, but they cannot escape a sewage treatment plant.

It's coming because a pending federal order for ongoing violations of the Clean Water Act says something must be done, and a plant is one piece of more than $200 million in sewer upgrades deemed necessary. As if that weren't bad enough, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given the state a "D+" grade in the category of wastewater due to its aging infrastructure.

Currently, pump stations in the area in question are considered at their capacity, and a moratorium is in place for additional sewer connections.

The crux of the problem, as WWTA Executive Director Mark Harrison explained to residents over and over, is that the Mahan Gap Road site was topographically the best available and the least expensive alternative of some dozen or so studied. At any other site, waste will have to be collected in storage tanks in the Mahan Gap Road area and pumped to wherever the treatment plant is built.

Further, any other future site is bound to come with the same set of complaints as did the one the Hamilton County Commission voted down.

It's too near my house. It will be unsightly. It will smell. Sewage will run over and damage the environment. I'll get a disease from the nasty air.

So, the local planning commission and the county commission can look forward to having those same arguments in the future with a different set of homeowners.

Residents, meanwhile, were working on conjecture and assumptions about what might have been expected from a sewage treatment plant. Harrison was working on knowledge of improvements that have been made in such plants and the technology that exists for their usage.

On one hand, the residents' complaints may never have come to pass; on the other hand, the improvements and the technology in such plants may not have kept them from having problems.

Part of the de facto property tax increase passed by the Hamilton County Commission in September 2017 was to pay for a new sewage treatment plant. Now, according to Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, having to locate the sewage treatment plant at an alternative site — a more costly option — might force another tax increase to pay for debt service.

In the meantime, further growth at places in the eastern end of the county will be stymied. Growth comes with jobs, more people paying more property taxes and the county reaping more money so it might provide more to the community in the form of schools, better roads and improved services.

No growth means fewer jobs, less tax revenue, and fewer county upgrades and improvements. It makes the county a less inviting place to locate a new or larger business.

Yes, we're offering a worst-case scenario. In time — five to seven years is typical for construction — a sewage treatment plant will be built, or an as yet undetermined alternative plan will be figured out, and growth will pick up again.

What the potential time lost will cost the county cannot be measured. In the meantime, Mahan Gap Road residents can celebrate for finding and using "The Secret of NIMBY" — not in my backyard.

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