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High and dry: Belmont residents want water

They've talked with local governments, but, so far, no one is helping

POSTED: June 21, 2009 12:30 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Roy Lee Crowe has to haul water to his horses at his Belmont home since his well water is undrinkable. Many other Belmont residents have similar problems but cannot get any satisfaction from Hall County of nearby Jackson County.

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Roy Crowe lives in a nightmare where the source of clean water is visible but beyond his reach.

At the corner of Belmont Highway and Mabery Road, Crowe has four wells that have gone dry. The one that does work produces water so dirty, so full of iron that Crowe and his wife Elizabeth buy their drinking water and wash their white laundry elsewhere.

Wearing overalls and brown cowboy boots, Crowe stands in his front yard and points to the right, across Mabery Road, where a Gainesville fire hydrant sits on the far side of his neighbor's property. Then, he turns to face forward, and points out a Jackson County water meter on the back side of the property across Belmont Highway.

He can't get water from either source, and every week he prays for rain to fill the barrels that his three horses drink from. When the rain does not come, Crowe loads the barrels on his truck and fills them down the road at his daughter's house.

Roy and Elizabeth Crowe moved to Belmont on July 4, 1968, and Roy can remember signing a petition for water service that same year. He says he has put his name on plenty more petitions since then.

Country folk usually pride themselves on the fact that they draw their water from a well. But for many Belmont residents, there's nothing worth drawing and paying for "city" water is the only choice - other than finding somewhere else to live. And moving is certainly not an option.

"All these folks have lived in this community all of their lives," said Belmont resident Larry Nix. "... They've got roots that go plum to the center of the Earth here."

From his home on Anglin Drive, Nix is heading up the effort to bring the water to Belmont. He, like Crowe, traces the community's water saga back to 1968. Nix can recount just about all the water-related events that have occurred since then. None of those events, many of which included promises from public officials, ever resulted in water service.

Until last week, one of the most promising of those events occurred at the height of the housing market's heyday in 2006. When word of a developer's plans to build a 33-lot subdivision spread throughout the community, Belmont residents knew water was sure to come with it.

The subdivision's developer was going to pay for Gainesville's Public Utilities Department to extend a water line from Ga. 60 to the subdivision, which straddled the Jackson County line. The line would have allowed about 10 properties on Belmont Highway to connect to the city's water system.

"Everybody got excited. We started biting our fingernails (saying) ‘oh boy, we're getting water!'" Nix recalled.

But the housing bubble burst, the project never materialized beyond a little moved earth and neither did the water lines.

"So we're still without water," Nix said.

Today, the obstacle standing between the Belmont residents and immediate connection to the nearest Gainesville water line is money. Without a developer to pay for it, cost estimates for 3.33 miles of water lines is about $1.3 million - or $65,000 per customer the line would serve, according to Gainesville's Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall.

The return on the million-dollar investment would be the monthly water service payments of 20 customers at the most. The outcome is not really a return at all, Randall said.

The situation of Belmont residents "pulls at your heart strings, but you really have to make sure you can serve the most customers as you can," Randall said.

"It's really a difficult job to decide where best to expand your resources. Since it's Gainesville's job to provide water service to Gainesville and Hall County at the best possible rate, you've got to have somebody to pay the loan on the line that's being extended."

Despite the cost, the Gainesville utility plans to expand its water lines to areas of the Belmont community by 2012, based on a first-come, first-served priority list of planned water extensions. The department has already done some preliminary design work for the lines.

But Nix and Crowe hope a more recent event in the community's water saga will get them water service sooner than 2012.

On June 11, two Hall County Commissioners - Bobby Banks and Tom Oliver - made an emphatic motion to get water service to residents on Belmont Highway, Talmo Road, Mabery Road and McEver Lake Road as soon as revenues from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax would allow.

The motion, approved unanimously by the four members present at the meeting, called for the county to pay for the water lines with the sales tax revenue and be reimbursed by Gainesville's Public Utilities Department in 2012 - the year the city department originally planned to extend water service to Belmont.

The commissioners threatened that they would take their business to Jackson County where connection fees are cheaper if the city utility was not amenable to the motion.

Hall County Public Works Director Ken Rearden said the motion could push the construction of Belmont's water lines up from three years to four months.

But Randall said the motion was a violation of a three-year-old agreement between the city municipality and the county.

"Gainesville is going to provide water service and can provide water service in accordance with the terms of the January 2006 agreement," Randall said.

In January 2006, the two entities agreed that Gainesville would provide water service to residents and businesses of unincorporated Hall County on a first-come, first-served basis. If the county needed the city utility to extend a water line earlier than Gainesville's planned construction schedule, the county could ask for it as long as the county paid for it.

"Water main extensions requested by Hall County to be constructed ahead of schedule may be designed and constructed by Gainesville and the cost thereof paid for by Hall County," the agreement reads.

Once those lines are built, Hall County would give them to the city utility to maintain and collect revenue, according to the agreement. The agreement is signed by the Gainesville City Council and the 2006 county commission, including Oliver, Billy Powell and Steve Gailey who all voted on June 11 without mention of the three-year-old agreement.

Oliver says now that signing the agreement may have been a mistake.

"If we put $1.3 million in there and Gainesville sells tap fees and sell the water, that's not the agreement I should have signed," Oliver said. "That was a mistake."

Oliver promised Belmont residents if the SPLOST passed in March, he would make sure water service made it to their homes. The SPLOST passed, and Belmont Highway resident Radford Murphy remembers the promise.

"Tom Oliver promised us if that SPLOST, if it passed, that we would definitely get water down here and there would be something done by April," Murphy said. "It passed, and so I was expecting to get water before they blow it on something else, you know?"

Oliver said he plans to keep that promise even if it means breaking the 2006 agreement and asking Jackson County to extend its water lines to Belmont.

But even that scenario may not be possible, according to Frederick Alke, the chief engineer of the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority.

"That poses all kinds of problems," Alke said.

The first is that Belmont is not Jackson County's territory. And even if Gainesville agreed to let the neighboring county serve its customers, the cost of building the lines to Belmont exceeds the benefit, Alke said.

Jackson County is at a lower elevation than Hall County, and pumping water to Hall County would require installing expensive booster pumps on top of the cost of installing 6,600 feet of water lines.

"We're being asked would we consider a quarter of a million dollar line that would also require (booster pumps) and oh, by the way, it's for 20 families, when we don't have the finances to do everything we need to do in Jackson County," Alke said. "We're going to take care of Jackson County before we can start doing favors for Hall County."

Alke said the Jackson County utility has not yet been contacted by county officials about extending water service to Belmont, but said he does not imagine that the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority's board of directors will go for it.

"I do not presume at any moment to speak for the water authority board. ... My experience tells me that we would not go further in debt to aid Hall County residents when that money could be spent in Jackson County," Alke said. "It's a charity begins at home situation."

But county lines and investment returns do not mean much to Murphy, who remembers seeing dirt at the bottom of his well last year and sees his neighbor fill up plastic jugs with a water hose at the Candler Road trash compactor site.

"It's just a shame, I think, they can't furnish the rest of us down the road here," Murphy said."... We're aggravated with the way things is doing down here."

And while Hall County, Gainesville and Jackson County officials find a way to finance the community's water service before 2012, Belmont residents will continue to haul water to their homes and farms from other areas.

It is a burden they bear merely because they carry the wrong license plates to use the Jackson County water supply and reside in a community too small to be worth any utility company's immediate attention.

"We're in a pocket of no-man's land - right between Hall and Jackson County - and everybody's just kind of forgot about us," Nix said.




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