Thursday, May 28, 2009
By Matt Roberts, Managing Editor
More than 60 people attended a special meeting the night of May 26 to continue a debate that began months ago over whether the city should provide the capital for a $6.3 million sanitary sewer line through the Stone Canyon basin area along East 76th Street North.
And though most of the arguments presented by opponents of the project had been presented to city staff and the Owasso City Council at previous meetings, the presence of Oklahoma Water Resources Board finance head Joe Freeman gave the residents a new ear to hear their concerns.
Freeman received a letter of protest in April from several residents against the project. The letter claimed that the city had failed to satisfy several requirements mandated by the OWRB-the state agency that would provide the loan for the sewer project-and asked the agency to host a meeting in Owasso to hear public comment.
But Freeman told residents at the May 26 meeting the agency looks solely at the economic factors involved in the city's loan application, not at whether or not the community backs it.
"The type of a project that a community would want to undertake is a local decision," Freeman said. "We do not get involved in that part of the decision.... Once the authority board would pass a resolution saying they want to file an application for a project, we would move forward from that point. Everything else is a local decision."
That neutral approach didn't mute the several residents who took their turn at the podium voicing their opposition to the Stone Canyon sewer line project.
Bill Williams, who moved to Owasso in 1968 and has served as mayor, public works director and even worked on the city's planning commission, said he's concerned the residents' utility rates would likely rise to pay for the project. He also said he was worried the hard limestone in the Stone Canyon area would make developing the line more costly than developers are expecting.
"That rock is hard land to develop," Williams said. "I know that-I've been in rock. I ran a construction company for 13 years, and when you get into rock, it costs you a lot of money."
Former city councillor D.J. Gall, who was greeted by a round of applause as he approached the podium next, insisted he was not against the Stone Canyon development, just against the funding method the city had chosen.
"I don't think the taxpayers of Owasso should be financing the sanitary sewer for the benefit of the Owasso Land Trust," Gall said, "they stand to make a lot of money out of this deal.
Gall also said he believed three Owasso city councillors had a conflict of interest with the project, and should thus recuse themselves from official consideration of the sewer line. He also said he believed the money being sought for the Stone Canyon-area line could be better applied to areas in need of repair in the city.
"If you're going to put us into debt," Gall summarized, "put us into debt to fix the existing needs of the citizens, instead of building additional infrastructure."
Several other residents also took the podium to express their opposition to the sewer line project, including Kelly Perkins, an Owasso resident who fought back emotion as he told the group he had just lost his job that very day after giving it 30 years of his life.
"The recession is coming in from the coasts, people," Perkins, a resident since 1965, told the group. "Do not spend your money before it's here."
Perkins suggested, along with others, that the city consider requiring the developers obtain their own performance bond, a private bond that would guarantee repayment of the funds if the developer defaulted in its payments.
J. B. Alexander, who represents the Owasso Taxpayer Alliance citizens' group, said the OWRB had failed to provide them answers to the questions they posed in their complaint, but that he was hopeful those questions would be answered as a result of the forum.
A token number of individuals in attendance expressed their support for the project, as well.
Ricky Hayes, a former economic development director with the city of Owasso, told the group he believed there are four types of cities-forward cities, backward cities, backward cities moving forward and backward cities with "no intention of moving forward." He said he believes Owasso has been, and continues to be, a "forward" city.
"We are here tonight to voice our opinion about a sewer line interceptor that the city's building," Hayes said, "and I'm really a little upset when I read in various publications of the 'controversial Stone Canyon sewer line,' because this is not the Stone Canyon sewer line. This is the East 76th Street North sewer line, and it goes right by my house."
Hayes said that wherever sewer lines have been extended in the city, residential growth, increases in housing values and improvements in quality of life have followed.
Owasso Land Trust partner David Charney finished out the public comments at the meeting with a defense of the project he said was likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"We went through about a two-year vetting process [with the property owners]," Charney said. "And after they saw what our vision was, they said 'you guys really do care about this on a visceral level'.... They said, 'we're going to go with you guys on this.
Charney said the property owners had been approached by numerous investors from other states who were interested in the property, because "you don't get a 3,000-acre blank canvas on the front door of a major metropolitan area."
Charney emphasized that they had expended a great deal of their own money in planning the project, a fact he believes has been ignored by opponents of the sewer project.
"If there's one thing that turns my stomach more than any other," Charney said, "is not that you disagree that this is a good project. If you do that, it's your God-given right."
"But what I don't like," Charney continued, "is when you say, 'there's a bunch of public money going in to benefit the back pockets of these private developers.' That isn't what this is, folks."
Charney said the the city is only trying to provide the "bones" necessary for the community's development, and that his company covers the costs of sewer lines, water lines and roads in their subdivision developments-not the city.
Despite the continuing debate, progress on the project continues. City councillors approved the environmental statement for the project earlier this month, and the design phase on the sewer line is continuing.
The city paid for the services of a stenographer to record the entire meeting; City Manager Rodney Ray indicated transcripts from the meeting would be provided to city councillors, the Owasso Taxpayer Alliance and members of the news media. Ray also said copies would be available to residents at the rate normally applied to such documents, and a full version will also be available on the city's Web site, www.cityofowasso.com after it is completed.
The city will also accept written comments on the 76th Street Sanitary Sewer Interceptor Project through Tuesday, June 9, 2009. Comments may be mailed to: City of Owasso, P.O. Box 180, Owasso, OK 74055, e-mailed to Sherry Bishop or dropped off at Owasso City Hall on Main Street.