( 5 Votes )

As soon as the Board of Supervisors meeting began (Sept. 4), Fluvanna citizens realized that the vote they had gathered to witness would not be taking place. At around 6 p.m. the preceding evening, the decision had been made to move to Sept. 18 the vote on the proposed agreement with Louisa County regarding the James River water pipeline, though, as Dennis Holder pointed out during public comments, no notice of that postponement had been given to citizens planning to attend. Still, those present were treated to the frank exchange of ideas and open debate by supervisors over the merits and drawbacks of the proposal.
First, County Administrator Steve Nichols presented the proposed agreement to the Board. If approved, the agreement would empower the James River Water Authority (JRWA) to construct a pipeline for the benefit of Fluvanna and Louisa counties. Formed in 2009, the JRWA consists of three members from Fluvanna and three members from Louisa. It is the JRWA, not Fluvanna or Louisa, that holds the permit allowing water to be withdrawn from the James River. Under this proposal, the permit’s intake location would need to move from Bremo Bluff to Columbia.
At a cost of about $3.5 million, half of which would come from Fluvanna, the JRWA would construct an intake facility at the James River by Columbia and run a pipeline, ending in a junction, roughly to Rt. 6. The intake facility and pipeline would have a capacity of 3 million gallons and would be jointly owned by Fluvanna and Louisa. At the junction, Louisa would construct its own pipeline at its own expense, which would run north-northeast through Fluvanna to Louisa.
Under the agreement, Fluvanna would have options for its future water needs. Fluvanna could construct its own pipeline at the junction, moving raw water through the county.
Fluvanna could also pay to tap into Louisa’s water line within Fluvanna County.
After the presentation, the discussion began, first centering on the pipeline’s immediate benefits to Fluvanna. Supervisors seemed to agree that this proposal would not alleviate the county’s water woes in the near future, though the ability to run an eventual line was appreciated by some. The proposal also has the benefit of putting the withdrawal permit to use before it expires. According to Nichols, “it’s hard to imagine a scenario” in which an expired permit would be reissued.
Taking proactive advantage of a partnership with Louisa also comes with an advantage, Nichols explained, because it is quite possible that Louisa could run a pipeline through Fluvanna even without Fluvanna’s consent. Precedent exists in Virginia, he said, for counties without access to their own water to obtain it from sources in nearby and sometimes unwilling counties.
Many concerns about the proposed agreement existed as well. Supervisor Bob Ullenbruch took exception to the idea of Louisa running a pipeline “through our land” to benefit Louisa’s economic development. The proposed pipeline would run through 76 parcels of land in Fluvanna, and some Fluvanna citizens are worried about granting Louisa eminent domain over Fluvanna properties.
Opponents of the deal are also concerned that Fluvanna would receive nothing from Louisa in return for its use of Fluvanna’s land. In a similar situation, according to long range planner Jay Lindsey, the city of Virginia Beach paid host county Isle of Wight $600,000 per year for five years in exchange for the ability to run a pipeline through Isle of Wight’s land.
Expressing her support for the proposal, Supervisor Mozell Booker declared, “We have gotten closer to getting water at Zion Crossroads and future water in this county than we ever have, and we’ve got the cat by the tail.”
“Except we don’t have the money to pay it,” Ullenbruch countered.
“Oh, come on,” Booker sighed.
“‘Oh, come on’ what?” Supervisor Donald Weaver retorted.
“You gotta spend money to make money,” Booker replied.
“Well, I want to see a time when we start making money,” Weaver responded. With that, and with the help of Booker’s fashionable reading glasses, he began to read a statement he had prepared. Dismayed at the short notice he received of the impending vote, Weaver expressed amazement that the vote was even taking place on a contract not discussed at the preceding meeting. He did not like that the vote was scheduled for a day when Supervisor Joe Chesser was absent, and declared that historically the Board does not vote on big issues in the afternoon, when less of the public is free to attend. He questioned the lack of a public hearing on the contract, and shared his concern that the Department of Environmental Quality, which decides how much water from the pipeline each of the two counties needs, would grant Louisa more than a 50 percent share.
In response, Chairman Shaun Kenney spoke positively of the opportunity to “put straw on the ground for minimal cost” and the need to give ourselves “as many [water] options as humanly possible.” He also took issue with the impression given by some opponents that “we must not approve the JRWA because Louisa might benefit,” saying, “I don’t think I would ever turn to my neighbor and say…I hope you’re not successful.”
“Nothing you said is wrong,” replied Ullenbruch, “but the problem we have now…[is that] we need a shovel to dig ourselves out of where we are at today… We are well over $100 million in debt.” Ullenbruch warned supporters that the money for the pipeline would result in higher taxes, taxes that would no longer be available to go toward increased expenditures for schools or other county services. “Are you willing to bite the bullet for the next five years and not increase your budget?” he asked.
Kenney agreed that “the first rule of getting out of a hole is to stop digging,” but asserted that “the second rule is to buy a ladder. That’s the ladder,” he said, pointing to the pipeline plan. He also cautioned Ullenbruch that holding the reins on spending isn’t as easy as it seems when “our pressures are driven by Richmond” in the form of slashed state funding for schools and unfunded state mandates.
“We have the greatest opportunity right now,” Booker joined in. “Every time we pass [up] an opportunity…to do something and then we are forced to do it, it costs us twice as much.”
Weaver then drew the Board’s attention to the local composite index (LCI), a formula used by the state to determine the ability of school divisions to pay for their own education costs. When a county’s tax revenue increases, funds from the state decrease. “I’m not against economic development but let’s just put our cards out on the table,” he said. “Funding from the state will be reduced as we get a higher composite index… Nobody ever talks about that.”
“There’s a reason why the healthy balance is 70-30,” Kenney replied, meaning that ideally, Fluvanna would pull 70 percent of tax revenue from residents and 30 percent from businesses. “That’s because of the LCI.”
A few citizens took advantage of public comments to weigh in on the issue. Catherine Neelley, general manager of Lake Monticello Owners’ Association, requested on behalf of her organization that the Board hold a public hearing on the matter before deciding by vote.
Jacques Ruch found “nothing, nothing, nothing” to benefit Fluvanna in the agreement, and recommended, “If we are going to throw away millions of dollars we better throw them away to the schools, which could really use them.”
Former Supervisor Len Gardner had the opposite opinion. Of all the plans to bring water to Fluvanna, he found the JRWA pipeline to be “the most forward-thinking plan for Fluvanna to adopt. True, it’s perhaps a longer-term plan than one of the others, but Louisa does have the money, where we do not.”
In a separate presentation by the planning department, Jay Lindsey informed supervisors that allowing a major utility, such as the proposed water pipeline, in land zoned A-1 (agricultural) requires a special use permit (SUP). The Board has the option of altering the ordinance, which would allow not only Louisa but other localities to “develop major utilities in Fluvanna on a by-right basis,” or keeping the ordinance intact, which would “require Louisa to apply for an SUP.”
Supervisors will vote on the proposed JRWA pipeline agreement on Sept. 18, which is the same day as the public hearing on Aqua Virginia’s proposed plan to bring water to Zion Crossroads. The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. in the high school auditorium.