The city of Cumming’s recent decision to take over a private sewer plant near Lake Lanier has caused issues for residents in the neighborhood and could lead to legal action.
In April, the Cumming City Council voted unanimously to condemn the Habersham Wastewater Treatment Plant with plans to put a new, modern facility in the place of the private plant that was built in the 1970s and serves about 400 homeowners in neighborhoods along Buford Dam Road.
Since then, the city has taken over operation of the plant, but neighbors are now raising issues with being charged $6,250 in fees to connect to city sewer – the attorney for the group who had previously controlled the plant called the city’s methods “fraudulent and unconstitutional.”
At the same time, city officials claim plant officials diverting untreated outgoing wastewater to a city line was illegal and that the plant did not meet standards.
How did we get here?
In recent years, the plant has been the center of political and legal issues.
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 (HAC), which previously handled business items.
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 complicate matters, a separate group bought the property in a foreclosure sale, which the committee claimed wasn’t the bank’s property to sell.
In 2016, Glenn Berny with the HAC said that may complicate the city taking over the plant.
At that time, Cumming Utilities Director Jon Heard sent a letter, which then became public, saying Mayor H. Ford Gravitt “guaranteed” the city would take on the facility if then-Forsyth County District 5 Commissioner Jim Boff, who represented the area, did not seek office or was defeated in that year’s election. Boff did not seek re-election.
Gravitt said at the time that the comment was made during a meeting with staff and that he was hoping to have someone work for the city as Boff got “in the middle” of talks between the city and residents.
On April 6, a small shed holding the main sewage pump of the facility was damaged in a fire, and untreated sewage was diverted to a nearby city sewer line.
Later that month, the City Council voted unanimously to condemn the plant and surrounding properties. The city took over the existing plant and has plans to build a state-of-the-art facility.
The new facility would first take on about 111,000 gallons per day and is planned in 12-18 months, and a second phase would reach 7.5 million gallons per day. A 15-million-gallons-per-day plant is the ultimate goal and is slated for about 2050.
City gives residents two months to pay
In a letter to Habersham subdivision residents on May 17, Heard informed customers they would be charged a one-time fee of $6,250 per residence to connect with city sewer.
Heard said the funds will be used for upgrades that are “vitally important in order to provide modern, secure wastewater treatment services to [the] neighborhood” and that the fire and rundown equipment, which had exceed its 25-year lifespan, “led to a dangerous interruption of proper wastewater treatment service” for the neighborhood.
The city is claiming it can take over the plant due to a trust indenture – an agreement between the city and the HAC – and that the plant having flowed into city sewer was illegal.
Owners can pay in full by 5 p.m. on July 31 for a discount of $1,250 for a total of $5,000 or fill out paperwork at Cumming City Hall to make a schedule of payments to a minimum of $100 a month for 62.5 months plus a state-required interest rate. Alternative payment will be added to monthly bills.
Those who do not pay in full or set up an alternative payment will be charged the full amount on their August water bill.
In a later phone interview, Heard said if all residents were to pay the $5,000 fee, it would total about $2 million, which is a portion of the $10 million needed to bring the facility up to standards, including replacing five pump stations in the system and addressing issues with gravity sewer lines.
“The infrastructure, equipment and other aspects of the facility are outdated, falling apart, rusted, just basically inoperable as a wastewater treatment facility,” Heard said. “This facility discharges into Lake Lanier, and the regional standard for a wastewater treatment plant to discharge into Lake Lanier is having a state-of-the-art facility in place.
“The feeling that I get when I’m at this facility is this is more like a third-world country wastewater treatment plant instead of a modern facility in the United States.”
Reaction from neighbors
Several residents in the Habersham community reached out to the Forsyth County News to express frustration with the new fees and the ongoing issues.
Resident Lance Cobb said he didn’t know about any of the issues until he got the letter for payment.
“We had no idea there were any issues when we bought the house, and we get a letter saying we owe $6,000 for some issue that we didn’t know was an issue, and it’s due in two months,” he said.
He also feels it is unfair that those who cannot afford to pay $5,000 upfront will pay more in the long run.
“If you’re rich, no big deal, just pay it and get a discount, but if you’re not, you have to go on a payment plan and pay interest on top of that,” Cobb said.
He said he agrees with Heard that the plant was past its prime but feels it should have been taken over long ago and that residents should have been informed about issues sooner.
“I wish I had six months notice so I could figure out how to refinance or borrow from a friend or family, but two months is not enough time,” he said. “Even in the letter it says, ‘We’ll let you know in a couple of months what our plans are,’ but they want our money before that. That’s not acceptable either.”
HAC attorney response
Attorney George Butler, who represents the HAC, sent a letter to representatives at the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Division calling the city’s plans “fraudulent and unconstitutional.”
Butler, who declined further comment and said the letter speaks for itself, asked the EPD to process the HAC’s normal permit to discharge treated waste into Lake Lanier, to excuse failure by the HAC to comply with corrective actions that couldn’t be done after the fire and to encourage the city to file a formal condemnation proceeding.
In his letter, Butler said the city had an agreement with the plant to divert effluent and had done so in the past to prevent the waste from reaching Lake Lanier. He also said the diversion was privileged under Georgia law.
Butler said the trust indenture referenced by the city was illegal and “fraudulent,” and, while it had been signed by his clients, was incomplete and “was at best conditionally ‘delivered’” to the city under specific conditions he said were not satisfied.
He said the city and HAC were still negotiating the trust indenture in October 2006, a month after it was allegedly signed, including over a description that would not charge tap fees for customers if the city took over, which was never agreed on – in his view, a trust indenture had not been agreed upon.
Another issue was with the city using the fire as a reason to condemn the facility, which he said was of suspicious origin and “purely a ‘manufactured’ crisis to justify the city’s existing plans to take over the plant and its extremely valuable [discharge] permit and to enable it to try to steal them ‘fair and square.’”
Butler indicated he had filed an open records request with the EPD for relevant documents.
He also defended his clients’ rights to divert flow and claimed the city had kept about $15,000 for sewer charges owed to the committee.
City Attorney Dana Miles could not be reached for comment as of press time.