Saturday, June 10, 2000

Landowner fighting sewer plan had deal

Family facing deadline on offer to buy property

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BELLEVIEW — For more than a year, most residents here have opposed a decision by Sanitation District No. 1 to put a new wastewater treatment plant in their area of western Boone County.

        Despite adamant opposition by the landowner whose property would be taken, speculation over whether he has plans to sell if the price is right has been widespread.

        Documents obtained by the Enquirer show that for nearly a year, the landowner, Don Stites, has in fact had an agreement in place with the Sanitation District regarding the sale of his property.

        The fate of the most-talked-about piece of property in Belleview Bottoms may soon be decided.

        Sanitation district officials have given the Stites family until Wednesday to accept their offer for sale of the land or make a counteroffer.

        The documents show he signed an agreement with the Sanitation District less than a month after the sanitation board voted to locate the plant on his farm. The legal agreement, signed June 25, 1999, states that neither party can disclose the existence of the offer or its terms.

        Mr. Stites joined other residents in a lawsuit to prevent the district from developing his land in October 1999 and publicly maintains his no-sell stance. Stites family members say they only signed the confidentiality agreement to buy more time so they could hire an attorney and allow Terry and Vickie Brennan, another couple opposed to the new plant, to file a lawsuit.

        “They led us to believe we were about to be condemned,” Mr. Stites said. “Negotiations are by no stretch of the imagination under way. There's been no two-way conversations since last summer.

        “They gave us an offer, we refused it, and we haven't met with them since. We do not want to sell.”

        If an agreement isn't reached, a resolution will be proposed at the board's June 27 meeting to authorize condemnation proceedings. If the land is condemned, a jury would decide the eventual price of the land.

        This is the same meeting at which district board members are expected to vote on the draft regional facilities plan, a document that outlines sewer improvements over the next 20 years. The plan includes two new treatment plants — one in Boone and another in Campbell County.

        Sanitation officials say they are bound by the confidentiality agreement and won't divulge how much money they offered the Stites family, or any other details. The offer was for 228 acres, although the district only needs 100 to 150, said Jeff Eger, sanitation dis trict general manager.

        “There has not been an official counteroffer,” Mr. Eger said, “but they indicated they thought (the property) was worth more.”

        He added that discussions have always been at arm's length.

        Gallatin County Fiscal Court got into the mix Thursday night when members decided to seek information about whether the district would consider locating the controversial Boone County plant in Steele Bottoms, which is in Gallatin County.

        “There's some interest in the eastern part of the county to look into the possibility of what's available,” said Gallatin County Magistrate Elsie Ewbank. “Is this an opportunity for a regional plant? What we're interested in right now is information.”

        The sanitation district had looked at property in the Steele Bottoms area and at property near Sterling Materials, a limestone mine. However, discussions regarding both of those properties fizzled.

        District officials agree that the Steele Bottoms site would be a good one. The primary roadblock is money. Estimates for the Sterling Materials site indicate that it would cost in excess of $25 million more to locate the plant there. That's in addition to the $120 million to $140 million for the new Boone County system, which includes the plant, force mains and lines. The Steele Bottoms site would cost an additional $14 million to $18 million.

        “We're not that rich,” said Gallatin County Judge-executive George Zubaty. “We're not a wealthy county. I don't know where the money's going to come from. When there's multijurisdictional cooperation the state seems to find the money some way.”

        Gallatin County officials have not yet approached the sanitation district.

        “If somebody comes up with the money, I'm sure we'd take a look at it,” Mr. Eger said. “They think they might be able to come up with some grant money. We are not aware of any.”

        Gallatin County's move does not change the sanitation district's plans.

        The Kentucky Division of Water must approve the regional plan before the district can go forward with construction. However, district officials say they won't wait on approval to start condemnation proceedings on the Stites property.

        “Every indication we have from the Division of Water is that our plan is in order,” Mr. Eger said, adding that he hopes to avoid legal action.

        “We do have powers of eminent domain,” he said. “(But) we hope that we can successfully negotiate the sale of the property.”

        Mr. Stites said the only way the district will successfully negotiate a sale is if it looks elsewhere for property.

        “Find a location more in keeping with forecast growth trends,” he said, “That's in the southern part of the county or down the (Interstate) 71/75 corridor.”

        The discovery of a legal agreement between Mr. Stites and the district has surprised some. Mike McKinney, who represents the Brennans in the lawsuit the Stites family intervened in, said litigation against the district will still move forward.

        “Would it disappoint me?” he said. “Yes, if I found out one of the intervening plaintiffs was negotiating privately, but publicly stating that they weren't. That would always be a disappointment.

        “A private sale is always a possibility in any of these things. You can never discount that.”

        But, Mr. McKinney said, any talks the district may have had with the Stites family doesn't change the game plan.

        “It still doesn't excuse improper actions of the sanitation district,” he said. “It doesn't change anything that we do. What makes this controversial is they've (the district) completely denied any public input.”

        Mr. Stites said he will meet with his attorney and decide what the next move is in his family's fight against the district.

        “The time is growing short, I know,” he said.


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