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Annexation issues face city, utilities

By Staff
Vest: HU bordered on all sides, growth limited
Clif Knight, Hartselle Enquirer
Is it wise for the city of Hartselle to continue to annex property when the odds of it being a wise investment in the short term are slim to none? That question was in the center of a lengthy discussion between city officials and representatives of Hartselle Utilities, Hartselle Planning Commission, Northeast Morgan County Water Authority and East Lawrence-West Morgan Water Authority at the HU Building last Thursday night.
A definitive answer was still lacking after each group was heard during the meeting; however, there was a consensus that getting together to share information and concerns was a good idea and they agreed to do it again in three months.
"We're here because we need to know what we need to be doing to better serve the citizens of Hartselle," said Mike Gunter, HU board vice president. "We want to be on the same page, moving in the same direction."
HU General Manager Ferrell Vest used a color-coded map of the city to show where water, sewer, electric and gas utilities are currently located and where priorities for expansion exist. It also showed fringe areas recommended for annexation in the 2003 updated Master Plan. He said projects are under way to extend sewer to I-65 and Thompson Road and Barkley Bridge Road in support of industrial and residential development, respectively. Vest pointed out HU is trapped on all sides by other utility entities that are providing water and electric services.
"We have no master plan to extend these services east or west. When we look at the possibilities of growth from annexation we can see the gap getting wider between the customers we serve and those we don't serve."
He added the possibility of an interconnection agreement with East Lawrence-West Morgan Water as a backup system has been discussed.
"That's something that needs to be done," Don Sims, EL-WMWA general manager, said. He said without such an agreement a municipality is prohibited by state law to acquire or duplicate services offered by another waterworks system.
Garland Cheatham, HU board member, said dozens of utility companies are interconnected in large cities.
"It just a matter of them paying for services received," he added.
"Our big concern is providing utilities infrastructure for industrial development on the east side of I-65," Gunter stated. "We want to be cooperative and see growth accomplished but we're aware that we're the only party that can provide sewer. Our question is what do you want from us and what do you expect from us?"
Planning Commission Chairman Tom Chappell said the planning commission has been proactive over the past two years doing things to plan ahead.
"But I don't think we're ready to plan for speculative infrastructure," he added "We still have the issue of whether or not the city can afford to provide services for a newly annexed area. We can recommend annexation but the council has to decide if it makes sense in terms of economic benefit."
Mayor Dwight Tankersley said a coalition of Morgan County mayors is behind a plan to develop a new industrial park in the vicinity of I-65 and Thompson Road. Phase one would involve undeveloped property between the existing Hartselle-Morgan County Industrial Park and I-65. Phase two would extend east of I-65.
"If we build it, they will come and it will benefit all of Morgan County," he stated. "We need to find a way to work together."
"We've always been told 'you want to develop I-65.' To get there, we need the property in the city limits first," Mark Mizell, council member, said. "BRAC is bringing in a lot of jobs to the Huntsville area. This will spur residential and commercial growth. I have asked property owners to go ahead and come in and told them we would work with them to promote development. You may not be able to afford the infrastructure but will we be able to live without it in the future. You need to think about all of the possibilities of the city providing infrastructure. We need people in order to get the things we'd like to have."
Sims questioned the council why it would annex an area outside of HU's jurisdiction to provide electric and water services.
"When you look at HU's money tree, sewer is at the bottom," he said. "One-third of the city's residents don't have sewer. Would the council not do better to give sewer to the people who are already paying the taxes?"
For industry to come we have to have sewer services, Tankersley said
"We have a responsibility to grow industry and provide jobs for our people."
Northeast Water Authority Manager Bobby Taylor welcomed quarterly sit-downs to discuss matters of mutual interest.
"We spent $3.5 million three and one-half years ago to install a water main on the east side of I-65. We didn't know what Hartselle was planning because we didn't communicate. What each of us does, somewhere down the road, we're going to interconnect. Had we known when I-65 was built what we know now we would've installed casings before the highway was completed. Look at the money we could've saved. The last time we made a bore and installed a casing under I-65 it cost about $250,000."