Thursday, May 26, 2022

Court sides with Belville, H2GO, lifts injunction allowing RO construction to continue

Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO serves over 20,000 people in northern Brunswick County. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO serves more than 20,000 people in northern Brunswick County. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — After more than two years, it appears Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO will be able to continue the long-halted construction of its aquifer-based reverse osmosis plant.

Judge Charles Henry sided with H2GO and the Town of Belville’s joint motion Monday, lifting provisions in earlier court orders that froze activity as parties litigated the contentious 2017 asset transfer.

Related: Judge considers lifting court injunction on constructing H2GO reverse osmosis plant

Back to where it all began, sort of

Monday’s ruling means H2GO, now in political alignment with Belville, will make arrangements to accept back its own assets that a previous board transferred away (in order to “save” the plant) and hastily begin construction on the long-planned project, previously estimated at $35 million. The district had spent at least $6 million toward the plant before its outgoing board, upon learning the results of the November 2017 election, voted to transfer all $60 million of its assets to the Town of Belville.

After more than two years of turmoil in northern Brunswick County, things are basically back to where they were before the lawsuit began. Except now, the three parties have spent more than $2 million in legal fees combined and political wounds in the region are deeper.

Background

Judge Henry ruled the H2GO-Belville transfer was illegal, null, and void in April 2019. Because Belville announced it was appealing the order, Henry’s subsequent injunction, siding with the Town of Leland, was stayed pending the outcome of the appeal. This stayed injunction kept in place the original preliminary injunction imposed by Judge Thomas Lock in January 2018, which essentially froze all activity as it was after the transfer took place.

This meant Belville could not legally transfer back H2GO to H2GO. Also, H2GO was specifically barred from continuing work on the reverse osmosis plant.

After two failed settlement attempts between the three parties, Belville later withdrew its appeal following a two-way settlement agreement with H2GO (after H2GO’s political power shifted away from Leland). Leland announced it would keep its appeal — filed as a response to Belville’s appeal — of the order in place, which may or may not be reviewed by the Court of Appeals.

Judge Henry’s permanent mandatory injunction Monday effectively ends the bulk of litigation, with Leland’s appeal and expected request for legal fees from Belville remaining. In the two parties’ settlement agreement, H2GO agreed to join Belville in defending an expected legal fee claim from Leland — a stipulation Leland’s attorney said was not appropriate. The court’s ruling Monday did not address this aspect of the parties’ agreement but clarified the order should not impact Leland’s appellate rights or future legal fee claims.

Leland opposed H2GO and Belville’s joint motion, arguing in a phone hearing earlier this month that the two parties had arrived at their own settlement agreement illegally.

The Town alleged in court documents Belville and H2GO’s new political leadership effectively stalled legal proceedings and took advantage of the court system by appealing the order to make way for a friendly board.

Hilary Snow, spokesperson for Leland, said the legal outcome is what the town had advocated for all along.

“The Town of Leland has always maintained that the assets in question belong to H2GO and were never rightfully those of the town of Belville. It’s unfortunate that it’s taken three years in legal proceedings to be returned to the rightful owners,” she said Monday.

After years of planning for an independent and clean water solution (even before the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances crisis was known to the region) H2GO Executive Director Bob Walker said the utility is excited to get back to work. Customers can expect to receive reverse osmosis treated water with no rate increase, he said.

“We are excited to be able to begin the process of bringing our community clean, safe water without raising water rates,” Walker said in a release. “We plan to pick up construction of the RO Plant as soon as the Judge approves the transfer documents and plan and Belville and H2GO approve and sign these documents.”

In a statement, Belville Mayor Mike Allen said the town is ready to get clean water delivered to its residents.

“The Court’s decision brings to an end the long fight over delivering clean water to the 25,000 people served by H2GO. When Belville joined with H2GO in the transfer of the assets in 2017, we had only one goal: to build the groundwater RO plant to protect the health and well-being of our citizens.

“We look forward to returning the assets to H2GO so they can get the construction of their RO plant finished. We need to begin protecting our citizens with cleaner water as soon as possible,” Mayor Allen said in a statement.

Read Judge Henry’s order below:

H2GO – Unsigned Order Grant… by Johanna Ferebee Still on Scribd


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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