LELAND — After years of lobbying the state legislature and petitioning the state’s department of environmental quality to block H2GO’s planned reverse osmosis plant, which Leland called “excessive, unreasonable,” “unnecessary and expensive” in legal filings and town resolutions, the town now wants it for itself.
Under a proposed agreement, Leland asks Belville to de-annex land where the reverse osmosis plant is already partially constructed. It would also require Belville to pay Leland $350,000 in lieu of providing attorneys’ fees (which have topped at least $750,000 for Leland; it’s unclear if H2GO’s considerable legal fees would be waived under the agreement). The agreement would provide “reasonable” wholesale rates to H2GO to cover the cost of the plant, with a “court-appointed referee” to settle rate disputes.
Also included, but not related to the plant, the agreement would require Belville to renew an annexation agreement with Leland that is set to expire in 2023 (the twenty-year-old agreement identifies separate areas that Leland and Belville agree not to annex).
In a press release sent out at 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, the town announced the proposed settlement agreement, weeks after Belville announced its plan to appeal Superior Court Judge Charles Henry’s order (Thursday afternoon, a Leland spokesperson clarified the timing of the release was to allow press outlets additional time to cover the topic). That order found Belville’s acceptance of all of Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO’s assets in a late November attempted transfer to be illegal.
Both the ongoing court case and Leland’s agreement proposal come as H2GO’s leadership faces a potential sea-change in the fall. H2GO’s board is currently ruled by a majority of Commissioners who campaigned on an anti-reverse osmosis plant platform. The 2019 election is less than six months away, with two anti-RO-plant Commissioners terms set to expire.
The town is asking to build — and own — the plant “as soon as possible.”
“Leland will build and own the Plant and will obligate itself to provide aquifer-based reverse osmosis water to the District, thereby addressing both the concerns of those who want the Plant and the concerns of those who do not want the District to build it,” the release states.
It’s also worth noting that the proposed agreement would also clear the way for Leland to continue expanding its water and sewer services (in August of 2018, Leland asked H2GO to curtail its growth and transfer hundreds of customers to the town).
“Fifth, the District will not impair the expansion by towns within the District into areas in which they want to provide additional services. The District will agree to convey necessary components to the towns to further assist with the towns providing expanded services. More generally, the District will not expand on the outskirts of a town if that town wants to provide expanded services in that area instead,” according to the release.
Leland’s desire to complete work and take ownership of the reverse osmosis plant is an about-face for the town.
In June 2017, Leland legally appealed the Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to issue H2GO’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The town’s appeal claimed H2GO’s plant would harm the environment. It was dismissed in October 2017 in Brunswick County Superior Court.
Also that month, the town passed a resolution asking H2GO to stop work on the $35 million plant — that H2GO had already spent at least $6 million toward — until after the November election. Earlier that year, Representatives Deb Butler and Frank Iler introduced a bill, targeting H2GO, that aimed to stall work on the plant and prevent “duplicitous infrastructure” from being installed.
What Leland wants
Belville’s decision to appeal Judge Henry’s decision would inevitably further stall H2GO’s plant from being constructed. In its proposed settlement agreement, Leland asks Belville to “stop stalling.”
“In light of that recent ruling, Leland officials believe the court has spoken and it is now time to move forward with the Regional Compromise Plan, which addresses differing opinions in the community,” Lelands press release states.
Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman said Council is optimistic in its support of the plan.
“While we need to review a finalized plan as a Council, I am appreciative of the spirit of cooperation behind this plan, and from the Town Council in optimistically supporting it, to move on from an unnecessarily lengthy and costly dispute,” Bozeman states in the release.
The decision comes days following Leland’s hours-long closed session meeting to discuss the lawsuit Monday, during a special meeting called Friday with no other items on the agenda.
According to H2GO spokesperson Tyler Wittkofsky, “H2GO is aware of Leland’s proposed “Regional Compromise Plan”. The proposal has been sent to the members of H2GO’s Board of Commissioners for their review. The proposal will be added to the agenda of H2GO’s regularly scheduled meeting on May 21.”
Port City Daily is waiting on a response from Belville.
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