Critics balk at sewer extension measure

The city doesn’t know which sewer lines would be extended first.
Wednesday, October 29, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:56 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

Nearly a third of the money from an $18.5 million sewer bond issue on Tuesday’s ballot would be used to extend Columbia sewers into areas ripe for development. City officials, however, say it’s impossible to say for sure which lines would be extended first.

Potential sewer extensions meeting city criteria are in nearly every local watershed, including those of Clear, Mill and Grindstone creeks. Sewer engineer Steve Hunt said policy calls for new lines to begin within city limits and extend to “80-acre” points. The points are called that because they are specific points to which 80 acres of surrounding property will drain. Once the city extends a main line, developers must cover the cost of tapping into it.

The city has set aside $6 million of the potential bond issue proceeds for such extensions. Because the city extends sewers only at the request of developers, however, Hunt said it’s too soon to identify exactly which projects will be done and when.

“As requests come in,” Hunt said, “the City Council decides where the money will go.”

That policy has come under attack by the Boone County Smart Growth Coalition, whose members argue that extending sewer lines into undeveloped areas promotes urban sprawl.

Assistant City Manager Bill Watkins, however, said Smart Growth “has it backwards.” He says that, rather than encouraging development, sewer extensions simply supply service to customers who might be moving into the targeted areas anyway. He noted that 2,000 building permits have been issued in Columbia and the surrounding area this year.

“Those people are going to come. They want to come here,” he said. “The city has an obligation to provide sewer, just like police.”

The city extends sewers into new neighborhoods if developers seek voluntary annexation or if they enter pre-annexation agreements, which require the residents to become a part of the city as soon as their property is contiguous with city limits. Without city sewer service, Watkins argued, new developments would meet their own sewer needs with lagoons and treatment plants that drain treated wastewater into Columbia’s creeks.

Watkins said Columbia has always extended sewers as it grows. “Everyone else got their sewer the same way,” he said.

The $6 million figure, Watkins said, is simply the best estimate of what the city normally spends on sewer extensions in a five-year-period.

“As part of our five-year planning and budgeting process, we try to look into our crystal ball,” he said.

Watkins emphasized that sewer engineers do not dictate city growth. That, he said, is the job of the Columbia City Council, which reviews every request for a sewer extension before any money is spent. The council’s decisions, he noted, are subject to public hearings.

“We have numerous opportunities for people to give their input,” he said.

Smart Growth members counter that that process is insufficient. Some have called for a citizen advisory committee to review proposed sewer extensions.

Smart Growth co-chairman Ben Londeree, however, said he was pleased to learn that the city at least has a set of criteria for determining where to extend sewers.

“That’s just good planning,” Londeree said. “The city is saying these areas developments can occur, so developers will look for projects in those areas. ... This sounds like a sound plan, and I think that’s good. We don’t disagree with them on that.”

Where the parties disagree, however, is on the location of some extensions. Smart Growth earlier this week encouraged voters to reject the city sewer bonds out of concern that sewer projects in southeast Columbia might invite development that would compromise the environmentally sensitive Gans Creek, Clear Creek and Little Bonne Femme watersheds.

“It takes special planning to develop in there,” Londeree said. “That would be considered a problem by many of our members.”

Some landowners whose property is within the areas that qualify for sewer extensions said they have no plans to request city sewer service.

Hugh Stephenson, who with Bob Smith recently agreed to sell land in south Columbia for a new Wal-Mart Supercenter, owns a 140-acre tract south of Interstate 70 along the North Fork of Grindstone Creek. He said he has no plans to develop that land or to request a sewer.

“It’s just a farm right now,” he said.

Marjorie McGrath, who owns 157 acres just southwest of the city, also said she has no interest in city sewer service, though she acknowledged it would make her land more valuable.

“I have four children, and I have no idea what they plan to do with it,” she said.

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