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Years later, uncertainty still swirls around Habersham sewer situation
Glenn Berny, treasurer of the Habersham Action Committee, looks over the subdivisions wastewater plant. A private facility built in the 1970s, it served about 400 residents until it was condemned by the city of Cumming after a fire damaged its storage shed. (file photo) - photo by Kelly Whitmire

EAST FORSYTH — The future of an aging private wastewater treatment facility near Lake Lanier in eastern Forsyth County remains in limbo more than a decade after homeowners began running it.

And while many might like the city of Cumming to acquire the plant, there appears to be no quick remedy in sight.

The Habersham Wastewater Treatment Facility, which sits on 10 acres off Buford Dam Road on Wood Valley Court, serves about 400 residents of the Habersham subdivision. The system dates to the 1970s, when it was more common for large neighborhoods to build their own due to a lack of infrastructure.

Issues arose in the early to mid-2000s, when the facility was taken over by homeowners. The group eventually became the Habersham Action Committee, which currently handles business items.

Glenn Berny, a homeowner and treasurer of the committee, helps run the business side. That includes paying bills and hiring those who physically run the plant.

“If you were a homeowner, I don’t think you’d want to run a sewer plant. And we’ve done that now for 12 years,” he said. “We very much want to bring about a resolution to this.”

The facility, which pumps treated wastewater into nearby Lanier, has had problems over the years with the Environmental Protection Division for discharges that didn’t meet state requirements.

While occasional smaller issues still surface, particularly after heavy rains, Berny said the previous situation with the state has been resolved.

Prior to 2006, the plant was operated through Infrastructure Solutions. That arrangement ended in a disagreement between the company and homeowners over assessments, which would have been used to pay for improvements to the system.

To complicate matters, a separate group bought the property in a foreclosure sale, which the committee said wasn’t the bank’s property to sell.

“There’s another group, and its rather complex. The cloud on this title is extensive and it has to be cleared,” Berny said.

According to Berny, the issue also complicates Cumming’s possible takeover of the plant, though he thinks the city would get a good deal for 10 acres and that residents are willing to pay fees associated with the transition.

Cumming Utilities Director Jon Heard referred comment on the matter to Gravitt. For his part, the mayor called the situation a “complicated mess.”

“I think you’ve got two or three people who say they own it … say they’ve got an interest in the plant,” Gravitt said. “If we worked out some kind of agreement with the homeowners, we’d also have [to have] an agreement with whoever says they own the system.”

Costs would also be an issue, according to Gravitt. Those costs likely would include construction of a new sewer treatment plant, which he said could total between $60 million and $70 million.

According to Gravitt, Cumming has no legal obligation toward the plant or any plans to take it over, as it was permitted and zoned by the county.

While Cumming does provide sewer to the surrounding area, the plant sits outside the city limits. He added that Forsyth County could also buy it.

The situation has taken on a political tone recently after an email from Heard, in which he referenced an alleged comment by Gravitt, became public.

In the email, Heard wrote that Gravitt in a conversation had “guaranteed” the city would take on the facility if Forsyth County Commissioner Jim Boff, who represents the area, did not seek office or was defeated in this year’s election.

Boff, who declined to comment on the matter, chose not to run for re-election to the District 5 seat he has held since 2009.

There has been speculation that the email factored into Boff’s decision, though he would not confirm that. Three Republicans are running in the May 24 primary to succeed him.

When asked to clarify his alleged remarks in the email, Gravitt said it came up during a discussion of possibilities for the area.

“We were in a meeting with staff, and I said, ‘This has been discussed for a long, long time.’ And I said, ‘There’s an election coming up, maybe if we have an election change and Boff’s gone and someone else gets in there, maybe we can work with them.’”

The mayor added that Boff “gets in the middle” of talks between the city and homeowners.

Regardless of Boff’s status, Gravitt said any sewer plan would require working with Forsyth’s government, as the potential project likely would involve damage to county roads and use of right of way.

Now that politics have entered into the debate, Berny said he doesn’t see the issue being resolved anytime soon.

“Probably not until after the election, I don’t think anything will begin,” he said. “Because some people want to run on this issue.”