By: Anna Wozniak
THE VILLAGE REPORTER
The Williams County Commissioners met for a special administrative meeting on Wednesday Sept. 13, 2023 at 10 a.m.
The meeting lasted nearly three hours and had two recesses. The first was 10 minutes at 11:20 a.m., and the second was a 20-minute-long deliberation at 12:25 p.m.
After deliberating with their lawyers, the Williams County Commissioners voted unanimously to deny the Village of Pioneer’s right of way work permit for the installation of about a mile of 20 inch waterline, capable of transmitting up to 10 million gallons of water a day from the water field along CR S to the industrial park.
Eminent domain, the process through which the government takes away private property, has two restrictions.
The first is that the land must be taken for public use, and the second is that the landowner must get “just compensation” for the land taken.
Details surrounding the denial mostly circulate around whether or not this waterline is to be considered a public utility, as the only perceived public benefits would be a few fire hydrants and the capability to offer other corporations the same opportunity to purchase water from private landowners along CR S that are on the water field.
Because the Commissioners found that the waterline would be installed with the major purpose to provide a transmission method for water sold by a private, non-regulated entity (property owners along CR S) for sale to a private entity (AquaBounty and other corporations in the industrial park), the right of way work permit was denied.
The meeting began with a presentation made by Thomas Thompson, the attorney for the Village of Pioneer.
Thompson began detailing the semantics of the right of way permit application process thus far.
He shared that this marks the third application that has been submitted by the Village of Pioneer to the Commissioner’s Office, and that this application had originally been submitted in April of this year.
Thompson then went through the details of what the most recent application entailed, as it had been submitted twice previously in June of 2021 and February of 2023, revised with each submission.
This version of the application contained a signed term sheet outlining public utilization of the transmission line, as well as the details of the fire hydrants that would be accessible to CR S residents after its implementation.
Thompson argued that approval of this permit would not only benefit the Village of Pioneer’s water infrastructure and capacity, the allowance of AquaBounty would also benefit the local economy.
Thompson highlighted that Pioneer currently is able to provide 800,000 gallons of water, and as the industrial park attracts more businesses to the area, it is feasible that this capacity will be outpaced by incoming commercial demand.
The waterlines that the Village of Pioneer would be interested in installing would be 20 inches thick, with the capacity to service the Pioneer area with up to 10 million gallons of water a day.
AquaBounty needs five million gallons of water a day to operate, and the extra capacity of 5 million gallons a day is what he argued gives their project right of way protections.
The Village of Pioneer passed Ordinance No. 06-2023, which established this waterline as a public utility. Thompson argued that the passing of this ordinance gives this waterline the right to be installed, as it has already been declared a public utility by the Village of Pioneer.
If passed, AquaBounty would construct the transmission lines and donate them to the Village, while maintaining a separate water treatment facility and pumps for the wastewater transmission pipes.
After outlining the proposal, Thompson and the attorney for AquaBounty, Russell Kutell, presented the Commissioners with affidavits from village and AquaBounty officials detailing the benefits this would provide for the community.
The Commissioners then opened the floor to the many residents that were in attendance. Attendees clapped in agreement with one another as they detailed concerns around the project.
The wastewater from AquaBounty is supposed to be dumped into the east end of the St. Joseph River, and many residents are concerned that the natural ecosystem of the area will be damaged by pollutants, and that there could be unknown repercussions from farming genetically modified salmon.
Concerns were outlined multiple times over the occurrence of flooding, as residents at the east end of the St. Joseph River reported that the area is already almost a flood basin, with many wondering the ramifications of an additional five million gallons of water being added to the mix every day.
It was also brought to the attention of the Commissioners that the public felt as though this right of way work permit is the result of a conflict of interests, as Pioneer Mayor Ed Kidston stands to benefit should this application have been approved.
Owning property along CR S, it was apparent by the whispers in the room that when Thompson referred to “private entities” along CR S selling water off of their property to corporations, residents present corresponded that with Mayor Kidston selling water off of his personal property.
Concerns were also raised on the integrity of the water field in general, as water is a limited resource.
Would Pioneer residents have to dig deeper wells when the water field is lowered due to at least five million more gallons of water a day being pumped to the industrial field?
Residents didn’t stop there, citing that this transmission line seems more for private gain than public utility access.
Williams County Engineer Todd Roth shared that there were semantics that would have to be worked through, and that as long as their plans were approved by the EPA then there should be no issue.
He also expressed distaste for the change in plans from the initial project, as originally the permission requested had nothing to do with public utilities and right of way permits.
The Commissioners then began their questioning, with Commissioner Hilkert asking for particulars regarding tap fees for hooking up to the new line, to which it was answered that the village would determine these tap fees based on how much it would cost to maintain the line.
Commissioner Westfall confirmed that while the village would own the waterline itself, the water within it would be privately owned, meaning that the village would have to purchase water from a private entity along CR S and only use the amount they are paying to have pumped into the system.
Then, Commissioner Westfall clarified that the capacity of 10 million gallons of water a day in the waterline is useless if the water field cannot sustain that amount of water usage for a prolonged period of time, and asked who would be responsible for regulating the health of the water field.
He was answered that the Ohio DNR would be responsible for regularly inspecting water quality and the ramifications of additional wells and wastewater.
Commissioner Westfall also pointed out that AquaBounty’s water treatment facility is private, meaning that the pumps associated with getting the wastewater out to the east end of St. Joseph’s would also be privately owned, and any other businesses along the waterline would have to secure their own pumps, as well as pay for their own water from a private source with access to the water field.
Commissioner Westfall also inquired into who would be controlling the price of water, to which it was replied that the agreement for that would have to be made on a case-by-case basis between the landowner and the corporation.
Also, on a case-by-case basis would be the installation of wells for the use of the village and other businesses in the industrial park by the Ohio DNR, which could or could not be approved based on the health of the water field.
Commissioner Rummel asked if there were any other instances of a right of way work permit being issued for a project that allowed for the transportation of goods from one private entity to another, to which it was responded that that information “was not deemed relevant” to the issue at hand.
Roth stated that this is a project that has many other avenues of completion, and urged the Village of Pioneer and AquaBounty to search for a solution that does not require the labeling of private commerce as a public utility.
Nearing the end, Village of Pioneer attorney Thomas Thompson shared that the economic benefits of allowing this project could single handedly fix North Central Schools budget deficit, as well as provide upwards of 100 jobs.
The Williams County Commissioners then went into deliberation with their attorneys at 12:25 p.m., returning at 12:46 p.m.
The Commissioners then made a motion to approve the Village of Pioneer’s application for a right of way work permit to install about a mile’s worth of 20-inch waterline along CR S, with Commissioners Hilkert, Westfall, and Rummel unanimously voting “no,” then voting to adjourn the meeting at 12:47 p.m.
Anna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org