Alarm raised on Little Rock sewer bills by Andy Davis | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Alarm raised on Little Rock sewer bills by Andy Davis

Posted By on Tue, Feb 21, 2017 at 12:01 PM

ANDY DAVIS: Opposition arises to his sewer legislation, which will produce more expensive sprawl in Little Rock, a critic says.
  • ANDY DAVIS: Opposition arises to his sewer legislation, which will produce more expensive sprawl in Little Rock, a critic says.
An alarm is being raised about pending legislation that would require the city of Little Rock to extend sewer service outside city limits.

The sponsor is Rep. Andy Davis, who sells wastewater treatment systems. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote about the legislation a few days ago, relying on Davis' description of two bills.

In 2015, Davis reduced the fees paid into a damage fund by wastewater plant operators. This year, he's filed a bill to make operators pay a bit more. But he's also filed a bill, HB 1549, that provides a way for cities to extend wastewater service into land outside the city limits.

The bill requires extension of the service if a nonresident asks for it, provides an easement, pays for infrastructure and signs a pre-annexation agreement.

Davis said he worked with people concerned about construction of two proposed "package" treatment plants outside the city. The Democrat-Gazette quoted Joe Carter, a member of the group, as saying the legislation was a "marked improvement" of the current situation.

Most of the article discussed the fee structure on the assurance fund. But Carter said he liked HB 1549. It could provide an alternative to a developer's plans, denied by the city so far, to build a small package sewage treatment plant that would discharge wastewater into Nowlin Creek. City Director Lance Hines said he, too, liked the idea of extending city sewer service outside the city of Little Rock. That would be less of a problem than septic tanks or small "package" waste treatment plants, he indicated.

Jim Lynch, a longtime city activist and former city planner, disagrees. He's a veteran of the fight against westward sprawl that led to unpaid new demand on sewage treatment facilities. Try to add "impact" fees to reflect the true cost of added utility and other city services, however, and the developers scream. City Director Lance Hines is a supporter of the westward growth and an opponent of impact fees.

Writes Lynch:

I cannot imagine a worse piece of city planning or growth management policy. Already the sprawl forces control the thinking of LR local officials (and have for decades.)

This will produce more sprawl. Of the many capital intensive, brick-and-mortar infrastructure items needed for urban life, sewer is the most necessary and the most expensive.

Public health requires it and, compared to water pipes, sewer lines typically are deep in the ground (gravity flow). Developers will do anything to get sewer on someone else's dime.

Remember our aborted attempt to adopt impact fees for sewer about three years ago? Reggie Corbitt's difficulties and departure scuttled the initiative. 
City Director Joan Adcock is raising questions about the legislation, too, and a question she posed to City Attorney Tom Carpenter produced this response:

I have reviewed HB 1549. While the language at first appears to maintain discretion with the local government, Section 2 (e), which starts on page 2 at line 28, mandates that the City provide extraterritorial sewer service to areas within its planning jurisdiction if: (1) the city has capacity; (2) there is a request for such service; (3) necessary easement have been obtained by the applicant; (4) the applicant pays for the infrastructure (which is not further defined); (5) necessary deeds for sewer service are provided to the City; and, (6) a pre-annexation agreement is signed.

The last section of the bill expressly notes that local governments have no control over the situation if there is a request for extraterritorial extension and the above conditions are met.

This creates a number of problems. First, the mandate has nothing to do with the impact that a development will have, or may in the future have, on the City. Second, a municipality cannot mandate service to all of the customers within its corporate limits under current law, yet this allows a developer - not the municipality - to make the decision about extraterritorial services even though the developer is not necessarily a citizen of the municipality. Third, I am not sure how the City can own property outside the City limits, but the statute requires that the developer deed the property to the municipality; that said, I know that cities can own park facilities outside its corporate limits, so that need to be reviewed further.

Another complication that I see from this legislation is the impact it would have should the City be sued under state or federal law for failure to comply with environmental regulations. While Little Rock, the Water Reclamation Commission, and the Plaintiffs are natural parties to such a suit, and any potential settlement, this suggests that any developer willing to meet the various preconditions would have a right to participate in the settlement. Of course, among other things this would be a loss of the sovereignty of the local government to a private developer who, except for this one area, has nothing to do with City finances, nor really contributes to the property tax base.

I would think an entity like Central Arkansas Water would also be bothered by this legislation. According to the language, the City would have to provide sewer services even though CAW may not wish to provide water services. There is no requirement that CAW, or any municipal water system, be involved or approve of a sewer system that may have an adverse impact upon its groundwater, or water source.
Davis said the legislation wasn't related to his business, but a response to requests from constituents west of the c ity. He said he doubted the sewer line extension bill would help the Ferguson development because its distance from the city would likely make paying for a connection cost prohibitive.

He said he thought that bill and the increased fees on package plants at least made things better for those concerned about new developments, though he said he doubted it would quiet all concerns. But he said he believed there'd be broad support for the city sewer extension proposal.

And what of Lynch's complaint about encouraging sprawl?:

"In general I would say I don't know that I  agree or disagree. I do believe we have to have a place for people to move and live. Housing costs are high and I'd like to see the city do what it can to make new housing more accessible and less costly."

Davis said he'd received no negative feedback from the city since informing City Manager Bruce Moore about his plans. He said he hadn't spoken with water or wastewater utility officials. He said he'd had some thought of beginning to move his legislation in committee Thursday, but if he got feedback from the city that might be delayed.

I reiterated my past questions about legislators who carry legislation that directly affects their private business.  Davis responded:

"These two bills certainly wouldn't be any benefit to my business but are a response to constituents' request to work on it. My view is I'm working on it for my constituents."

He emphasized that those annexed would pay sewer rates the same as others.

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