A bill making its way through the state legislature could help tip the scales in favor of Lebanon and Mt. Juliet in an ongoing dispute with the Wilson Water and Wastewater Authority.
Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, sponsored a bill that would allow water and wastewater authorities to be treated as utilities and would allow appeals of water and wastewater authorities’ decisions to be heard in circuit court.
Current law directs appeals relating to water and wastewater authority service areas to the water and wastewater authority board.
For more than a year, Lebanon and Mt. Juliet city officials and the Wilson Water and Wastewater Authority have worked to agree on who would provide services to property straddling the Mt. Juliet and Lebanon city limits at the Beckwith Road interchange.
The issue arose when plans came to light for a large-scale development in the area.
Bel Air Providence, which would have been located south of Interstate 40 near Beckwith Road, included 3,000 apartments, 500 single-family homes and millions of square feet of office space.
And with its prime location minutes from Nashville International Airport, the project’s developer, Dallas-based American Communities, and local officials received plenty of interest from national retailers and residential developers.
By June 2012, the developer started to clear land and put in some retention areas, according to Mt. Juliet City Manager Kenny Martin.
With the property straddling Mt. Juliet and Lebanon, both cities were on board to provide sewer services. Lebanon just needed to run a line under the interstate from the Eastgate subdivision.
And then Wilson Water and Wastewater Authority stepped in.
“We became aware that the developer had executed a contract with the city of Lebanon to build infrastructure under the interstate to serve that development,” said Chris Leauber, executive director of the Water and Wastewater Authority.
State law gives the Water and Wastewater Authority the power to establish its service area, according to Leauber and Lebanon city attorney Andy Wright.
Leauber said when the agency established its service area in 2001, it was based on the cities' boundaries at that time.
Since then, annexation has changed those boundaries.
Another state law, however, gives annexing municipalities the exclusive right to provide utilities in areas being annexed. Because the two laws seemed to conflict with each other, the cities sought an opinion on the issue from the state attorney general.
“According to the AG’s opinion, the city has the exclusive right to serve any area that the water authority’s not in and already serving,” said Wright. “And even if they already were serving in the area with what we call ‘pipes in the ground,’ we would still have the exclusive authority to serve it; we would just have to compensate them for their infrastructure and pay them for what they’ve got in that area.”
But the water and wastewater authority has no “pipes in the ground” in the area in question.
“If there are no pipes in the ground in that area, then our position is we’re not going to pay them anything because that’s ours to exclusively serve.”
During the Lebanon City Council’s meeting March 4, councilors passed a resolution affirming its intention to service the area.
“City council passed a resolution [March 4], based on that attorney general’s opinion, that we have the exclusive right to annex and if the water authority is not currently serving it, then it’s ours to serve,” said Wright. “The purpose of the resolution was to give developers confidence in that area, that the city intends to serve it.”
City officials also hope the recent attorney general’s opinion, combined with Beavers’ proposed bill if it becomes law, would help assure potential developers that they wouldn’t get embroiled in a lawsuit relating to the property.
According to Billy Weeks, a representative of one of the property’s owners, Dr. Charles Kaelin, development in the area will hinge how this is resolved.
“Mt. Juliet’s got sewer that’s already run under Beckwith Road. We’ve got sewer that we’re fixing to run under the interstate that will connect directly to Dr. Kaelin’s property,” said Weeks. “They’ve lost numerous, numerous huge business opportunities because of the threat of a lawsuit from wastewater.”
Weeks said he could not say which businesses were considering the property because of confidentiality agreements, but he indicated they’ve looked at the property before.
“They’re on the hook, and they’ve walked one time, and I’ve been working with Kenny Martin about whether we can get them back or not, and he is absolutely certain that we can get them back,” said Weeks. “They’ve just been waiting on this issue to get resolved.”
Beavers said she hopes this bill will help provide that resolution.
“We’re just looking for some resolution so that Mt. Juliet and Lebanon can develop that property,” said Beavers. “They have all kinds of people looking at it, and really Lebanon will benefit more in that they have more property that’s undeveloped there than Mt. Juliet does.”
To Lebanon Councilor Kathy Warmath, though, the attorney general’s opinion makes the issue clear.
“We feel like since there’s nothing that’s been done, there’s no reason to even arbitrate or discuss or pay anybody anything because we can service that area,” said Warmath. “As far as our opinion from the city of Lebanon, I think we believe we have the green light as of right now.”
Leauber, however, wasn’t so sure about that. He said he had not seen anything in writing to that effect from the city, but he wasn’t sure if they have the legal right to move ahead with “putting pipes in the ground.”
“I think the state statute would require an agreement,” said Leauber.
Although they haven’t yet reached an agreement on who will service the area, they are in agreement on one thing – they both want the issue resolved.
“We’ve always had a great relationship with the water authority, so we sure don’t want to end up in court fighting over it if we can work out an agreement,” said Wright.