Town responds to authority claims over water dispute

STEPHENS CITY – The war of words over water between the town and the Frederick County Sanitation Authority continued Tuesday.

The Town Council met in closed session with attorney Thomas “Ty” Lawson during its regular meeting to discuss the status of a legal dispute between Stephens City and the authority regarding the ownership of water in a local quarry. The council took no action on the matter after the closed session but members and town officials issued a statement in response to recent claims made by the authority’s executive director, Eric Lawrence. Town Manager Mike Majher provided local media with Stephens City’s release.

The town calls the authority’s claims unfounded.

“First, the FCSA brought up on (sic) old threat that it may consider cutting off Stephens City from water and sewer,” the town’s release states. “This is a threat which was attempted previously in April 2015. As the FCSA well knows, it cannot act on this threat for fear of violating Virginia Department of Health rules to deprive a town of necessary services.”

The release notes that such action also would cut off water to the Stephens City Fire and Rescue station.

Lawrence said in an earlier interview that he did not specifically threaten to cut off the town’s water supply.

Town officials called it ironic that the authority, which receives free water from Stephens City, would threaten to refuse to deliver a small fraction of that resource back to the town. The authority benefits during this standoff impasse by not paying for the millions of gallons it pulls from Stephens City’s quarries, town officials claim. The authority then makes money when it sells the water to its customers.

“The FCSA’s press release also improperly suggests that Stephens City is not properly using the water/sewer utility revenue for the benefit of the residents of Stephens City,” the town’s release states. “To the contrary, Stephens City continues to maintain and deliver its water and sewer system for the benefit of the residents of the town and, in fact, Stephens City has recently initiated improvements to the sewer lines within the town in order to improve an (inflow and infiltration) problem.”

The town expects to begin repairs to the sewer system in the upcoming week.

“Stephens City is patiently working its way through the court system in order to seek the relief to which it is entitled, which is acknowledgement that the FCSA’s contract to enjoy free water has expired and that the court will order that the FCSA needs to properly compensate Stephens City and its residents for the water which has been taken and continues to be sold by the FCSA to its rate payers for profit,” the town’s release states. “Stephens City looks forward to a final solution of these matters through the court system. Of course, should the FCSA wish to change its strategy of delay and imposing significant litigation costs on not only Stephens City but also the FCSA rate payers, Stephens City looks forward to meaningful settlement discussions with the FCSA.”

Reached by phone Wednesday, Lawrence responded to the town’s latest statements.

“The contract that the town disputes that the judge said was valid … has enabled us to provide water for our community, including providing water to the town for over 25 years and the town’s received it at a significant discount for that time, too,” Lawrence said. “The contract that was entered with the town over 25 years ago provided for the authority (to) take the water in exchange for making the treatment plant investments in providing water to the community.”

Lawrence rejected claims that the authority reaps a financial reward on the water it draws from the town quarry.

“As a nonprofit we’re not making money,” Lawrence said. “We’re covering our cost so I think it’s interesting the town says we’re getting it for free. We’re not. We’re covering all of our costs and giving the town a significant discount in doing so.”

A Frederick County Circuit Court judge scheduled a hearing for July 27 for a motion to compel either side to produce information pertinent to the complaint. The judge recently dismissed four out of five claims against the authority. Town Attorney J. David Griffin said Tuesday after the meeting that the remaining claim – that the authority breached its contract with Stephens City – contains the substance of the lawsuit. Mahjer concurred.

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