A crowd stood in the hallway this week outside the packed Forsyth County Commission meeting room as issues between neighbors and county officials over a proposed wastewater treatment plant came to a head.
At a town hall on Wednesday, Forsyth County officials gave information and residents had a chance to share their concerns on a proposed wastewater treatment facility on 99.9 acres at the end of Millwood Road.
“I hope that this can be a time that we can all learn from each other, that we can all listen to each other and I don’t think that this conversation ends tonight,” said District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills, who represents the area, at the start of the meeting. “I think that we will be able to come together and meet again. This is really, really early on in the process.
“There are going to be a lot of questions that we can’t answer tonight because we haven’t submitted for any type of permit, the facility hasn’t been designed, we’re still in due diligence. There’s just a lot of questions that can’t be answered, but we’re going to try to answer all that we can.”
In a closing statement to end the meeting, Mills – who said she was “sitting in the middle” between an advocate for homeowners and working with county staff – said she hoped to have a committee of neighbors to meet with county officials to address issues for the plant.
“What I have planned to do is go back and meet with staff and meet with the citizens’ group to see where we go from here to see if there are other avenues, to see if there is other information we don’t have,” she said.
What is proposed?
The new plant is aimed at treating wastewater and releasing the treated water back into Lake Lanier.
Commissioners approved the purchase of the land following an executive session on Sept. 11, and the item received final approval as part of a consent agenda at the board’s regular meeting on Sept. 18.
Reading a statement at the commission’s Dec. 6 meeting, Deputy County Manager Tim Merritt said the county had been looking to build such a facility in northeast Forsyth since at least 2002 and that there were already similar facilities in Gwinnett County and Gainesville. Treated water is planned to be released into Chestatee Bay.
Returning water to the lake could also strengthen the county’s argument for drawing water from the lake.
The facility will sit on about 25 acres of the nearly 100-acre tract, and construction is expected to start in 2020.
Officials said funds for the plant will come from fees from water department customers and not taxpayers.
Officials said concerns including noise, smell and traffic would be minimal at the site.
The plant is planned near the proposed East Forsyth High School.
Forsyth County currently has seven wastewater treatment plants in the county, the majority of which flow into the Chattahoochee River.
During the meeting, county officials attempted to explain some of the processes for how the property was selected, why it was needed and why residents were not informed before the land was purchased.
Ray Thompson, with Jacobs Engineering, said the property was the best choice and fit several requirements, such as being at least 40 acres, how the land sits in a Lake Lanier basin and its location to the service area.
Initially, 82 sites were first proposed before being whittled down to six, with two of those being preferred. Criteria included parcel shape, nearby development, terrain, access and other issues.
The site selection was done by Jordon, Jones and Goulding Inc., a firm acquired by Jacobs.
Tim Perkins, director of the county’s water and sewer department, said on Wednesday the county has been told since 2002 that the water needs to be returned to the lake rather than building new septic tanks, which he said are considered a “consumptive use.”
Perkins said consumptive uses are a factor in the “water wars” between Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
The plant will serve new development expected to come to the area rather than existing homes on septic systems.
County Attorney Ken Jarrard detailed the county’s process for buying land.
He said though most board items are discussed during open meetings, buying land – along with litigation and personnel issues – happens during closed executive sessions. Items discussed in executive sessions must be approved in open sessions.
“With respect to land acquisition, the reason is to make sure that we are the best stewards of your tax dollars that we can be because a negotiation for land that occurs out in the open and the seller gets to hear all of the due diligence things and how much money we want to spend and how valuable that piece of land is, you might anticipate that the seller’s price might go up a touch if they get to hear all that,” Jarrard said.
Jarrard said the county is currently in the due diligence process of the land and is expected to close in early January.
Officials said the county would have very strict and stringent standards on the plant.
Members of the community offered fiery responses to the county officials’ claims, with many arguing those in the neighborhood had been deceived about the development.
Neighbors said they not informed by the county about the plans until after the purchase was approved and they had no say in the process. Neighbors said they only found out after a resident saw surveyors in their backyard.
“The people here in this room have been very upset the county has been keeping us in the dark about this,” said resident Bo Slaughter. “I understand the need to keep it quiet while you’re looking for land and looking to be able to purchase it. However, the contract was signed on Sept. 10. There is no reason after that point you couldn’t come to the citizens in the area.”
Some residents brought up issues with potential spills and referenced last month’s spilling of 188,000 gallons of stormwater and wastewater from a manhole into Big Creek.
Since the surrounding homes are on septic systems, speakers were also frustrated they would be impacted by the plant but not able to use it.
Many speakers said they felt the county did not take their quality of life into consideration and felt the facility should be moved to an industrial area.
“Consider the quality of life criteria,” said resident George Auger. “The quality of our lives is going to be harmed forever. Where is that in your criteria? I don’t see that in your criteria.”
Residents were also concerned about any potential health risks.
Speakers raised concerns with reselling homes if the facility is built near them.
“There is a variety of things including health issues, environmental issues. You can sugarcoat it all you want because that’s what you’re here to do. You’re here to sell it,” said resident David Thompson. “Let me also say, I moved to Forsyth County because I drank the Kool-Aid just like the rest of us. We were told this was a great place to live. It’s going to be a very difficult place to sell homes in an area that is beginning to be … I mean, if you think the protein plant smells bad, this is so much worse.”
Residents also expressed frustration – and some disbelief – that there was no final cost for the building, no plans for where it would go on the land, no design and other issues.
Several of the evening’s speakers also wanted to see the facility in other large, industrial uses including a rendering plant and the Eagle Point Landfill, and many wanted to see the county extend the closing of the contract to allow time to address community concerns.