Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Sewer project's future in doubt

High cost, delays make some want to halt extension

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MIAMI TWP. - The push to open more of Hamilton County's western frontier to development is costing millions of dollars more and taking years longer than originally expected.

The situation is raising questions among elected officials and residents about whether the price is too high for the payoff.

Metropolitan Sewer District workers are putting six miles of sewer pipes down Wesselman and Harrison roads to allow up to 3,600 homes to be built in the hilly region where Colerain, Miami and Green townships meet.

The ability to pipe sewage to a regional treatment plant is essential to suburban development because it lets developers build more houses on less land than if they had to install septic systems for each home. But the Wesselman project has problems:

• It has gone less than a mile since construction started in 1999, and is now blamed for making one resident's home uninhabitable.

• The cost, originally projected at $3.7 million for the first 2 miles of construction, now stands at $5.6 million for the first mile alone and an estimated $14.3 million for the whole six miles.

• The sewer district originally aimed to finish construction by 2004 but is still more than five years from completion, Deputy Director Bob Campbell said.

County Commissioner Todd Portune will urge the other two commissioners to pull the plug on the Wesselman project when they vote on the sewer district's budget - and a proposed 14 percent sewer rate increase - later this month.

"I don't oppose all new construction but ... the priorities have to be balanced," he said. "We shouldn't be publicly subsidizing development."

The sewer district's money would be better spent, Portune said, in making a dent in the $1.5 billion it has committed to fix raw sewage overflows into streets, streams and basements in the county's older communities by 2022. Stopping the Wesselman project might also keep rates down, he said.

A dirty mess

Unexpectedly bad soil - the consistency of Jell-O - forced MSD to stop work along Wesselman after laying just 530 feet of pipe in 2000. The district regrouped after taking extensive soil samples in the valley and deciding the pipes could be installed by using more expensive construction methods.

Construction resumed this year with workers tunneling under the bad soil at depths of 10 to 40 feet much of the time, Campbell said, instead of digging open trenches to lay the pipes in, as they usually do.

The higher $14 million cost is justified, a 2001 internal analysis found, because the Wesselman project would result in much higher savings and revenue. For example, several pump stations and a small treatment plant would no longer be needed, saving $13 million in operating and maintenance costs over 30 years. The new sewer line would have less than $150,000 in maintenance costs over the same period.

The analysis also estimated that MSD would make about $9 million in sewer-connection fees if 3,600 new houses were built along the Wesselman line.

That's an unrealistic number of new houses, according to Todd Kinskey, senior planner with the county's Regional Planning Commission. Existing zoning might allow that many homes, he said, but it doesn't take into account limitations posed by floodplains and steep hillsides.

Just two developments are on the books now - both on the north end of Wesselman, where sewer pipes are already being laid:

• Whispering Farms, a 72-acre development on the west side of Wesselman in Miami Township. Developer Mike Younger plans 87 homes there.

• Bridge Point, a 136-acre development on the east side of the road, abutting Interstate 74 in Green Township. Fischer Homes is hoping to build 274 condos and 174 single-family homes there.

Smart growth?

Developers say constructing the sewers to pave the way for new development is good for Hamilton County, which saw a 1.4 percent population loss just between 2000 and 2002, to an estimated 833,721 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"People really need housing choices," said Larry Sprague, Fischer's vice president for acquisition and development. "Sometimes in the more populous areas people want a new house instead of buying an older house and rehabbing it. They need to have those types of houses in their own community so they can stay."

Commissioner John Dowlin is also a staunch supporter of developing western Hamilton County, saying it could help stem the wave of residents moving to Warren, Butler and Clermont counties.

"It curbs suburban sprawl because it keeps people in the county," Dowlin said. Green Township resident Tim Mara is spokesman for Concerned Citizens of Western Hamilton County, a grassroots group that opposes the project as a threat to the area's environment and rural character.

"We have a tough enough time trying to accommodate the growth that naturally comes our way without promoting more growth," Mara said.

The Wesselman project is exacting a cost from some residents that can't be measured in dollars.

Shirley Yankosky had to leave her hillside home on the north end of Wesselman after sewer work caused a landslide that cracked the foundation and support walls, according to a lawsuit she has filed in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court. MSD officials have acknowledged the damage to the two-bedroom house.

At the south end of the road, where construction is still years off, Tina Marimon's main concern is that more homes will mean more traffic. She's worried about the safety of her 2-year-old granddaughter.

"When we first moved here you hardly saw a car go by," Marimon said. "Now it's like (Interstate) 75 down here."

Not all residents are against the sewers.

Geri Kleier, who lives near Yankosky, is a little sad about the idea of hundreds of people moving to her "peaceful little valley," but she welcomes new sewer lines because she thinks they'll increase her property value.

"If the board doesn't wish us to continue, we look forward to them telling us that," MSD's Campbell said.


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