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City, county remain at odds over water extensions

The Hendersonville City Council and Henderson County Board of Commissioners appear to be hardening their positions in the newly revived water war.

Reacting to the move by the Board of Commissioners to block requests for city water line extensions in the county, the City Council on Thursday night will take up a recommendation to revise a 1997 agreement between the two bodies that has required the Board of Commissioners to OK water line extensions to developments in unincorporated areas.

Under the proposed modification, the city would notify the county of a “water availability request” but take no action on an extension until the county had approved the development. The policy would apply to extensions into unincorporated parts of Henderson County or to other towns.
“City staff will wait until the development project has been approved by the respective jurisdiction prior to approving the water extension final design,” the proposed agreement says. “ … In addition, water extension policies will be periodically reviewed by the Water and Sewer Advisory Council and approved by the Hendersonville City Council.”
In a Sept. 1 meeting of the county board, Commissioner Michael Edney opposed a request for a city water extension to serve a development of vacation cabins in Horse Shoe, saying the city is not moving quickly enough to equalize rates of inside city and outside-city water customers. The board voted unanimously to block the water line extension. The city and county have not had face-to-face talks over the dispute since then.
“We have not had any further discussions at this point,” Board of Commissioners Chair Grady Hawkins said. “We do have a study under way in the northern part of the county to look at sewer problems, particularly out at Edneyville Elementary School and the Justice Academy.”
Hawkins said the city had reneged on a commitment to roll back county rates by 15 percent a year and instead agreed to 5 percent a year.
“In 10 years, there’ll be four different council members with four different rates,” he said, adding that rate equity will come “on the 13th of never.”
“There really needs to be a resolution of water and sewer and some kind of authority in the county that would benefit the city and county residents and benefit the ability to have good control on growth,” he said. “When you’re trying to deal with a monopoly you don’t have many cards to play.”
By holding off on water extensions until the county authorizes a rezoning for a development, the city is ensuring that the commissioners control growth, Connet said.
“I hope this memorandum will reassure them that they do have ultimate control of development in the county and that we’ll adhere to the approval process,” he said. “We will not extend lines unless the commissioners approve the project.”
He added that nothing in the 1997 agreement on city water extensions authorizes the county to block water line extensions because of “philosophical differences” over water rates.
“I do not think they have the authority to use the policy to force the City Council to take action regarding rates,” he said. “That is only penalizing our citizens in the city and county.”
The city has provided Edney and county administrators with the resolution the City Council adopted in June committing to equalizing rates by 2029, a spreadsheet documenting the exact rates for city and county residential and commercial customers for every year until then and a list of actions the city has taken over the past seven years to accommodate the county’s demands.
“We just tried to be factual and suggested a process that would ensure commissioners that they have ultimate control of development as it relates to land use,” Connet said. “And this business about water rates — frankly they had no authority to stop extensions based on that, based on philosophical differences.”
Based on legal research, Connet said in the memorandum, “the City of Hendersonville has the authority to extend water service anywhere if the extensions are considered reasonable to the operation of our system. For example, we can extend service in reasonable proximity to our current system, but we could not extend water service to the Town of Weaverville. In addition, we have the authority to set utility rates in any manner that the City Council sees as necessary to operate our system.”
Hawkins said since he had not seen the revised memorandum, he could not say whether the county would agree.
“I would challenge that as far as whether the city has the authority to unilaterally run water lines or sewer lines wherever they want to in the county,” he said. “I’d have to take a look at that and see how it plays out. I don’t know enough about it at this point to really make a comment even if it passes the City Council. We’ll certainly take a look at what they’re wanting to put forward but I wouldn’t make any judgment until I had a thorough understanding of it and all its implications.”
For the time being, the standoff has delayed water line extensions to at least two sizable developments — the plan for 36 vacation cabins at Horse Shoe farm and a 29-home subdivision on Academy Road in Dana. Commissioners pulled the Academy Acres project request from their agenda on Aug. 3 and denied the Horse Shoe farm water connection on Sept. 1.
Currently, county users pay 145 percent of the rate city customers pay. Under the 10-year plan to equalize rates, city customers would see their rates rise while county users’ bills would remain flat.
Hawkins’ position that a countywide or regional authority for water and sewer has been widely shared by commissioners for years. In 2017, commissioners asked state legislators to consider shifting control of the city water system to the N.C. Utilities Commission, although the proposal never gained traction.