LELAND, NC (WWAY) — The Town of Leland is proposing a settlement and framework for a Regional Compromise Plan.
The proposal came Thursday with town staff saying it is, “aimed at resolving a long and heated dispute over the construction of a reverse osmosis (RO) plant and the role of the Sanitary District.”
The proposals follow a Brunswick County Superior Court decision on April 22. In that ruling, Judge Charles Henry said the transfer of the Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer (H2GO) Sanitary District, which included millions in cash and assets, to the Town of Belville in 2017 was illegal.
Leland town officials said in a press release that, “in the midst of debate within the community about an RO plant and the District’s authority, Belville went too far when it tried to take over the district.”
Leland officials believe the court has spoken and say it is now time to move forward with the Regional Compromise Plan.
“While we need to review a finalized plan as a Council, I am appreciative of the spirit of cooperation behind this plan, and from the Town Council in optimistically supporting it, to move on from an unnecessarily lengthy and costly dispute,” Mayor Brenda Bozeman said. “As this Regional Compromise Plan is now presented, the Town of Belville’s appeal of the court’s decision is possibly one of the biggest impediments to the community in terms of progress and to those who have supported and advocated for aquifer-based water.”
H2GO leaders are reacting to this proposal. Board Chair Jeff Gerken said he would be willing to learn more about the proposal and he calls it a potential compromise.
“I am willing to support this compromise because it is a cooperative, regional solution,” Gerken wrote. “I personally have yet to be convinced that a reverse osmosis plant treating water from deep aquifers is necessary, or that it should be built locally, but I can appreciate the value of this compromise if Leland is willing to build it.”
The town of Belville is calling the proposal a power grab.
“People could have been drinking GenX and PFAS-free water NOW if it were NOT for
Leland’s actions to stop the plant over the years,” said spokesman Mike McGill. “If you can’t beat them, just take them over. This is not, in any way, a regional solution. It’s merely a takeover of H2GO.”
Belville points also to the wording in the town of Leland’s injunction and lawsuit as contradictory of this proposed compromise.
“Leland has stated early and often that the transfer disenfranchised voters,” McGill said. “By conducting this hostile takeover of the RO plant project, and the treatment of water to all of H2GO’s service area, they are seeking to disenfranchise voters as well.
Brunswick County is in the midst of a permitting process to begin work on a low-pressure reverse osmosis plant at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant. County Manager Ann Hardy tells WWAY they are still reviewing the proposal made by Leland.
The plan is subject to finalization, approval by governing boards, and compliance with legally required process. It is outlined below.
- The RO Plant will be built as soon as possible, and the District’s customers will receive aquifer-based water. H2GOand Leland will cooperate to begin work on the Plant immediately. Leland will build and own the Plant and will obligate itself to provide aquifer-based reverse osmosis water to H2GO, thereby addressing both the concerns of those who want the Plant and the concerns of those who do not want the District to build it.
- The RO Plant will involve interlocal cooperation. H2GO and Leland will enter into an interlocal agreement requiring satisfaction of H2GO’s water needs and providing for the District to get its water from Leland until the RO Plant is paid off.
- H2GO will be contractually entitled to reasonable, wholesale rates that cover the Plant’s construction, operation, and maintenance (i.e., expenses that H2GO’s customers would have to pay anyway). A court-appointed referee will resolve rate disputes, and there will be termination rights if a court finds a bad faith breach of rate provisions.
- H2GO will resume its operations, just like before the transfer, under General Statutes Chapter 130A. The voters’ right to meaningfully choose H2GO’s leadership will be restored. H2GO will keep its existing customers.
- H2GO will not impair the expansion by towns within the District into areas in which they want to provide additional services. H2GO will agree to convey necessary components to the towns to further assist with the towns providing expanded services. More generally, the District will not expand on the outskirts of a town if that town wants to provide expanded services in that area instead.
- Belville must dismiss its appeal, stop stalling, and return the District’s property. Instead of paying $1 million or more in attorneys’ fees (which it will owe under G.S. § 6-21.7 after losing all appeals), Belville will pay $350,000 in 10 annual installments of $35,000. That will provide accountability, but not bankruptcy. Belville must also de-annex the RO Plant site and renew its annexation agreement with Leland.
- Leland also has a right to seek attorneys’ fees from H2GO for what the previous board did and will negotiate those.
WWAY spoke to town Manager David Hollis related to item 6 of the proposal. In it, the town would have H2GO and Belville give the land for the plant, which sits next to Waterford Village and behind Magnolia Greens, to Leland.
“It was a 20 year agreement, it’s got three to four years left on it, it’s been a good agreement for both parties and we would just like to extend it,” said Hollis.
Belville leaders say there is no secret much has changed in the area from now to 20 years ago. McGill called out the town for adding this in the compromise saying it solidifies the entire plan as a nonstarter.
“The two issues have NOTHING to do with each other,” wrote McGill. “This clearly shows that Leland is trying to use the plant fight to amass money and power. They want to own all of the development in H2GO’s service area through this so-called offer.”
Town staff say, if acceptable to H2GO and Belville, the Regional Compromise Plan will be formalized and presented to Leland Town Council at an upcoming public meeting for consideration.