Ohio: Residents question new sewer district
KINGSTON, Ohio — Hundreds of rural Ross County property owners face
fees and assessments totaling as much as $5,500 each for a sewer system
they didn’t want, didn’t know about and say they don’t need. In addition
to the cost, the residents fear it will fuel growth rather than manage
it, as public officials have said.
The trustees said they followed state law by notifying registered voters, rather than all property owners, and placing legal notices in the local newspaper.
A meeting is planned for 7:30 p.m. Jan. 5 at the Green Township Hall to discuss the changes. Township resident Kim Parker said that’s too little. She is especially frustrated that when the district was expanded, the state required only paid newspaper notices and a sign at the township hall. "The trustees had no one to question their argument,’’ said Parker, who lives with her husband and 3-year-old son on 3 acres.
The initial district involved 240 landowners in late 2001. Since then, two amendments have expanded the district to encompass the western half of the township. The Kinnikinnick Sewer District Board of Trustees earlier this month sent letters to 1,350 property owners explaining the costs to them: about $5,500, including the assessment fee, the cost to disconnect and fill in septic tanks, and the cost to tap into the new system. The specifics are still undecided, but all houses would have to be connected to the system within 15 to 20 years, trustees said.
Those with older septic tanks would take priority. Some of the assessment will repay loans totaling $900,000 that the township needed to begin planning. Parker is among a group of residents circulating a petition to object to the assessments. "If they want to put this in, just go ahead and let the developers pay for it,’’ Parker said.
She and neighbor James McBrayer think the township trustees exaggerated pollution problems to meet state requirements to establish such sewer districts and instead formed it to ease development and protect an industrial park from annexation into neighboring Chillicothe.
"For them to do the right thing, it’d be to reduce (the sewer district) to its original size,’’ said attorney James Cutright, who represents the landowners. Cutright questions the results of two water tests in 2001 that township officials said illustrate evidence of excess human and animal waste.
The same engineering firm designing the sewage project, Bischoff Miller and Associates of Columbus, conducted both tests. "Were there enough samples to make it clear that the western part of the township should be included?’’ Cutright asked. "I think the answer is clearly no.’’ Local health officials agree. Although the Ross County Health District recommended the original district, it did not endorse the two expansions, department spokesman Rami Yoakum said.
"We’d certainly lend our support, but we’re not convinced that the problem is that large,’’ Yoakum said. All three township trustees are large landowners or are related to large landowners, Parker and McBrayer said, and stand to gain from development. The sewer board’s makeup also concerns residents. "It all drives to more development,’’ McBrayer said. "These guys are telling a bunch of lies to scare people.’’
Township Trustee Peter Lyons defended both his colleagues and those appointed to the sewer board. They sought "a diversified and educated (sewer) board’’ because growth is inevitable, Lyons said. The U.S. Census shows that population in this northern Ross County township increased 22 percent, to 4,492 people, between 1990 and 2000. Ohio’s overall population grew by about 4.6 percent during the same period. "We see large problems now that could create larger problems down the road,’’ Trustee Charles Immell said, referring to alleged raw-sewage buildup.
Both Immell and Lyons and fellow Trustee Edward Reutinger denied personal conflicts of interest. Sewer Board President Gerald Ater owns a construction company, AKM Building Systems. If there was a conflict, he said, he wouldn’t participate. For now, the landowners opposed to the district have few alternatives. Deadlines have passed to legally petition the sewer district for a change.
"I wish we would’ve done a better job getting the information out there, but I don’t think it would’ve made much difference,’’ said Ater, explaining that the sewer board would have expanded regardless. Most of the opponents live in portions of the two expansions.
State law requires that trustees notify such landowners via legal briefings in the local newspaper and postings on the door of the township hall. Most ignored the jargon-filled notices, Parker said, and missed both 90-day deadlines to petition the sewer district. "No one even reads those notices,’’ Parker said. "Not everyone gets the newspaper or visits that door.’’
Registered voters in the original district received notification through the mail in April 2002, after Ross County Common Pleas Judge Nicholas Holmes approved the new district. No one petitioned the board within the 30-day deadline for that phase. Now, the sewer district is doing some damage control and plans to send a quarterly newsletter beginning this spring that will explain progress of the project. Township Trustee Lyons said he hopes that helps. "It’s just just been a snowball effect caused by misinformation.’’
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