Town lawsuit over water moves forward

A Stephens City official Thursday downplayed the threat of Frederick County shutting off the town’s water over a legal dispute.

Any attempt by the Frederick County Sanitation Authority to disrupt water service likely would draw the attention of the Department of Health, Town Manager Mike Majher said by phone.

He said that he had not heard that the authority would consider cutting off the water to the town if the town declines to pay for the service.

“That may not be what they’re trying to do,” Majher said. “I hope they’re just trying to reiterate their … frustration with the process.

“We’re trying to get a resolution and we’ve been trying for years now and we’ve run into a point where we’ve had a number of meetings and we’ve tried to come to some sort of an agreement,” Majher added. “But it boils down to a difference of opinion on who owns the water in our quarries and that’s really why we’re in the court system now and seeking a judgment on whose water is it.”

The Town Council meets Tuesday and plans to discuss with its attorney the status of the town’s case against the authority, Majher said. Ty Lawson represents the town in its lawsuit. Dale Mullen represents the authority in the litigation.

“I think once you get into the idea of shutting off thousands of people’s water, I think the health department would get involved at that point,” Majher said.

Stephens City entered into an agreement with the authority more than 20 years ago that allowed the authority to draw water from town-owned quarries. The town agreed to not charge the authority for the water drawn out of the quarries to compensate the agency for the construction cost of a treatment plant. Town officials claim the contract expired in 2012, meaning the authority would need to start paying for the water like it does at a Clear Brook quarry.

“The Sanitation Authority seems to feel that, while the contract is over, all the stuff that gives them free water forever remains and our opinions differ there,” Majher said.

Stephens City might have built its own water-treatment plant and drawn from the town-owned quarries rather than strike up a deal with the county if it meant avoiding the current litigation, Majher said.

A judge in Frederick County Circuit Court last week dismissed most of a handful of claims Stephens City made against the authority. The town’s claim that the authority breached a contract between the two entities remains and the judge has scheduled a hearing for later this month.

Sanitation Authority Executive Director Eric Lawrence issued news releases late last week in reference to the court action dismissing the town’s claims that the county agency lacks the rights to withdraw water from a local quarry. The judge rejected the town’s claims that its transfers of property and water rights to the authority are unconstitutional.

Lawrence noted Thursday that the releases did not insinuate that the agency would or could shut off water to the town.

“What’s most important is the court’s action that threw out four of the five cases and sustained the FCSA’s position … regardless of what the judge did, we still feel it’s appropriate to continue to work with the town and preserve their rates for the next year, which is a significantly reduce rate,” Lawrence said. “But we feel that show’s our good faith, that we want to work something out with them.”

The town began refusing to pay the authority for water and wastewater service in March 2015, a release notes. The authority continues to provide the services to Stephens City residents who, in turn, repay the town. Stephens City is supposed to pay a portion of the money it receives for water and sewer services to the authority to help cover maintenance and development of the distribution system.

The authority claims the town now owes close to $3 million but has done Stephens City residents a favor by not increasing the rates for service, the director added.

“We’re concerned about the town’s residents,” Lawrence said. “If the Town Council has its way and the FCSA holds firm and sustains our position … the town will not only have a debt of over $2.8 million toward us, but we’re going to raise all their rates.

“So our take is why is the town even pursuing this and do the residents even know this.” Lawrence added. “So we felt is was appropriate to not raise our rates, which apply to the town, but continue to offer them the reduced rate in hopes that the residents and Town Council realize there’s better ways to achieve resolution.

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