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Water district calls halt to annexations.

Byline: LARRY BACON The Register-Guard

FLORENCE - As the city of Florence has grown, it has nibbled away at its neighbor, the Heceta Water District, gradually shrinking the 36-year-old district that serves about 1,900 customers outside the city.

The growth - generally northward - has removed land from the water district through annexations and turned the residents into city water customers. Larry Stonelake, a retired superintendent, estimates that the water district is now about half its original size.

In its early years, the district had customers as far south as 22nd Street in Florence. Now its service area stops at Munsel Lake Road, two miles north of 22nd Street.

That's why the district is calling for a halt to the city swallowing up any more of its land. And why it has threatened to fight Lane County Boundary Commission approval of a 40-acre annexation approved in June by the City Council, along with two other annexations totaling more than 80 acres that are waiting in the wings.

"Our primary concern is being able to maintain our (customer) base, to be able to service our bonded indebtedness and our loan indebtedness," said Ted Condo, chairman of the water district board.

Condo noted that the water district is in the midst of $2.8 million in improvements that include building a new water treatment plant and water transmission lines, work that is being financed by a $1.8 million state loan and a $1 million bond issue. Losing customers means there are fewer people in the district to help pay off that debt, he said.

In June 2001, the district sent the city a proposed intergovernmental agreement that would have it and the city set policy jointly on a number of issues, including sale of surplus Heceta water to the city.

A key part of the proposed pact was a provision that in future annexations of water district territory, the district would continue to provide water service, meaning the annexed property would be part of the city and part of the water district.

At the time, City Manager Rodger Bennett called the requirement a "deal breaker." He said it ran contrary to a previous policy by the City Council that all annexed land be withdrawn from the water district, and would mean the annexed property owners would be taxed by both the city and the water district.

District officials argue that would be no more inequitable than city residents also paying taxes to the Port of Siuslaw or the Siuslaw School District because their property is also in those districts.

The threat to oppose future city annexations that come before the boundary commission is included in a letter mailed to the city last month by Condo, who said he's miffed because the city has ignored the proposed intergovernmental agreement and left the district out of the loop in discussing pending annexations.

The history of relations between the city and the water district often have been marked by acrimony - much of it related to dissension over annexation issues.

Relations took a decided turn for the worse about 18 months ago when the city suddenly broke off an agreement to work with the district on a joint project to build a new water treatment plant on Clear Lake - the district's water source - that was to serve city as well as district customers.

One of the main reasons for the city action was concern about legal problems related to the insistence of Aaron Jones, a Eugene timber company owner with property on Clear Lake, that water carried from the lake through a line across his property be limited to a million gallons a day. Jones said he was concerned about excessive drawdown of the lake.

The joint plant would have required a higher volume of water and could have led to a legal fight that Condo believes the district could have won, with support from the city.

If the city "hadn't been so gutless," he said, it wouldn't be going ahead with plans for a $2.67 million project to develop five new wells and expand its water treatment plant. The city put a bond measure on the Nov. 5 general election ballot to pay for the project.

"They basically slammed the door on us," said Michael Kendoll, Heceta water superintendent. "With them bailing out, it raised the price (of water system improvements) for both sides."

Bennett said the city wants to be a good neighbor and work with the water district. Even though some time has passed since it received the draft of the proposed intergovernmental agreement, he said, its intent always has been to negotiate a new agreement with Heceta.

He said he plans to send the district a counterproposal within the next several days.

He reiterated, however, that as far as the city is concerned, the intergovernmental agreement won't allow land annexed into the city to remain in the water district.

Whether the water district will be successful in challenging city annexations at the boundary commission level remains to be seen.

Paula Taylor, commission administrator, said the district has the right to call for a public hearing before the commission. The commission's criteria for approval include weighing the effect on other governmental units, and the ability of the city to provide services to the annexed area, she said.

Once the commission approves an annexation, she said, the City Council can take unilateral action to withdraw the land from the water district.

Sandi Young, city planning director, said she has held off taking the June annexation to the commission in hopes the issues with the water district can be resolved. The two other annexations are essentially on hold for the same reason, she said.

Condo said if satisfactory negotiations can take place with the city, it may not be necessary to challenge the annexations. The district's threat to do so wasn't necessarily an attempt to stop the annexations, he said, but primarily to get the city's attention.
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Title Annotation:Utility: Officials say they can't afford to lose any more customers to the city of Florence.; Government
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 22, 2002
Words:992
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