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House fire sparks dispute over access to water
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This home, owned by Philip and Mary Hart Wilheit, was destroyed by fire Monday evening.

A Monday night fire that destroyed the family home of a prominent local businessman has reignited a dispute between some Hall County and Gainesville officials over access to water and how to provide it for a growing populace.

“Water is the future of the entire county,” Hall Commissioner Scott Gibbs said.

The roughly 10,000-square-foot home in the 4600 block of Shoreline Drive off Harold Whelchel Road in North Hall, valued at about $2 million, is a total loss after the blaze appears to have begun in the fireplace and chimney before quickly spreading to the roof and engulfing the rest of the home, according to Hall County Fire Services officials.

Tanker trucks shuttled water to the site from a fire hydrant more than half a mile away; water was then pumped through a large hose to a fire truck actually putting water on the blaze, Capt. Zachary Brackett said. Lumpkin County also sent a tanker to help.

The home is set back about 500 yards off the roadway.

Gainesville officials were criticized over the summer after hydrants that had been taken out of service due to poor water pressure hampered firefighters’ ability to battle a blaze on the eastern side of Mount Vernon Road in the Highland Drive area.  

Fire crews were forced to shuttle water at that time similarly to how they managed Monday's blaze.

But City Manager Bryan Lackey said the water system does not extend at all to the western side of Mount Vernon, closer to where the Shoreline home is located.

“The system has (only) been extended east on Shirley Road when the residential developments on Wild Turkey Way and Crooked Creek Road were developed,” Lackey added in an email to The Times. “The system was extended west on Harold Whelchel Road when the neighborhood on Flagship Drive was developed. That is the extent of the city’s water system in that area.”

Gibbs said he is concerned about the city taking money from its water resources department to support its general fund budget rather than using those funds to “expand water service into unincorporated areas where most growth and revenue is coming from.”

Gainesville Councilman Sam Couvillon said the city does transfer money from the water department to its general fund budget, but it amounts to only 0.7 percent of net assets countywide and represents a “risk premium for the public water system.”

“We actually have risk and, potentially, liability everywhere we have a water line,” he added.

For example, if a water main break on Ga. 11/U.S. 129 near Casper Drive this week had caused property damage, like erosion or flooding of a house, or if it had caused a traffic accident, “we would have to incur expenses to address that,” Couvillon said.

And this expense would have to come out of the general fund, he added.

Moreover, every public utility in the state operates similarly and is legally allowed to do so, Couvillon said.

Gibbs, however, insisted this transfer of money is handicapping efforts to grow unincorporated areas and presents a public safety risk to rural residents by not extending the water system. The county does not provide water service.

“Every time we’ve tried to get in the water business ... we get our hands slapped,” Gibbs said.

And this is a little discussed aspect of the county’s support of the proposed Glades Reservoir.

The county temporarily withdrew its permitting application for the planned 850-acre reservoir last spring after the state, prompted by an Environmental Protection Division report stating the reservoir was no longer needed for local water supply, forced its hand.

But that was before a significant drought set in across the state, which is why Hall County officials continue to support the project and hope to validate its need in the future.

The state EPD has left open the prospect that the reservoir could be developed as additional storage to augment flows on the Chattahoochee River downstream of Lake Lanier in times of drought.

But Gainesville officials joined other regional water suppliers in pulling their support for the project, signing off on a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this year from King & Spalding LLP, a law firm based in Atlanta, that argued the 40 million gallons per day Glades could purportedly offer should be supplied directly from Lake Lanier instead.

“They have fought us at every avenue,” said Gibbs, whose district includes both the Glades site and the location of the home burned on Monday. “If we get in the water business, they’re done.”

The risk for homeowners building in unincorporated areas of the county that do not have access to the city’s water system can be substantial, as evidenced by Monday night’s fire.

Typically, homeowners who only have access to a well pay significantly larger insurance premiums to protect their homes and personal belongings in the event of a destructive blaze.

Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said it has to be cost-efficient to run water to the most rural of locations in the county.

Lackey added that the city could only do this if a large number of property owners petition the city to extend the line and agree to become customers, or a developer extends water to a new subdivision.

The city dispatched a few fire engines to support county efforts in battling the blaze at the four-bedroom lakefront home owned by Philip A. Wilheit Sr., a Gainesville business and community leader, and his wife Mary Hart Wilheit, who served as executive director of Gainesville/Hall ’96 leading up to the 1996 Olympics.

No injuries were reported.

Philip Wilheit is also a member of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, chairman of the Gainesville-Hall County Development Authority and previously served as statewide campaign chairman for Gov. Nathan Deal’s first gubernatorial race in 2010. He is the president and CEO of Wilheit Packaging.

Wilheit did not return calls for comment.

Dunagan said he had spoken to Wilheit, who was reportedly exhausted in the aftermath, and that he was devastated for the loss his friend has suffered.

Dunagan said he was working to help gather clothing and other basic supplies to support the Wilheits in their time of need.

“I told him I was here for him,” he added. “Anything we can do, we’ll do it.”

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