Construction on a $15 million aquatic center in Cumming can begin as early as March, now that the city appears to have cleared its final hurdle with the Pilgrim Mill Road project.
The city has agreed to settlement terms with the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which sued over violations of state and federal environmental regulations resulting from work at the site.
As part of the deal, the city must pay up to $150,000 to restore a degraded stream in Cumming City Park and support environmental education programs.
"This has been dragging on for a couple of years now and obviously it was something where we were going to have to settle with the Riverkeeper," said Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt.
"We wanted to get started on the aquatic center and the faster we could get that resolved, it would help us more in resolving all the other things."
Jason Ulseth, Riverkeeper's technical programs director and a Forsyth County resident, said any fines the city would have faced as a result of a trial would have gone directly to the state’s general budget and not had “any environmental benefit to the community.”
“So through settlement, we are able to send money through supplemental environmental projects that will directly benefit the surrounding community and environment,” Ulseth said. “For the most part, we’re happy with the agreement that we came to.”
The settlement comes on the heels of an earlier agreement with the state Environmental Protection Division.
In that consent order, or enforcement action plan, the city paid $40,000 and agreed to a list of conditions to comply with environmental laws. But
Ulseth said the correction plan and fine weren’t enough.
The penalties, he said, weren’t “sufficient for this type of violation and the impacts that were made to the environment.”
“We feel that the additional requirements that were placed in our consent decree help close that gap and help to alleviate further damage that was done.”
The issue dates back to spring, months before Riverkeeper sued the city for encroaching on state waters.
The organization sent information about the alleged encroachment to the EPD in April.
After discovering the site, Ulseth described it as "probably the worst" of the thousands of sites he had worked on.
“The site now looks like it’s in better condition,” he said. “And once these projects are completed, I think it will be very beneficial for the community and for the lake.”
According to the agreement with the EPD, the city: encroached on a 25-foot-buffer; had an improper erosion, sedimentation and pollution control plan; and did not provide a seven-day inspection letter.
Gravitt has repeatedly said there was no water present, no reason to suspect a stream, when the crews cleared the land in 2008, while the region was mired in a two-year drought.
Though the city has worked with the EPD and other environmental agencies, Gravitt said he didn't want to leave anything unresolved before moving forward with the project.
"We didn't want to start the project and have other lawsuits that might pop up from the Riverkeeper in reference to this," he said. "So that was one of the things that entered into us, was settling the lawsuit."
The aquatic center, originally set to open in October, could take 18 months to build.
While city officials have said they want to get the project done as soon as possible, there is another issue looming.
The city received $10 million from Forsyth County for the aquatic center as part of an agreement over the 2008 extension of the 1-cent sales tax.
The deal, however, required that the center be substantially complete before 2012.
Steve Bennett, assistant city administrator, said the city has received a buffer variance from the EPD, which means the project can move forward and likely be finished on time.
Gravitt said the agreement is under 45-day review.
The city council meets Tuesday, at which time he said city attorneys will advise whether work can begin before the review is complete.
"We're all glad it's over because the quicker the better for the aquatic center," Gravitt said.