July 29, 2008

Culpeper, Town Deal-Signing Hit Snags

By Donnie Johnston, The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.

Jul. 29--It was supposed to be a simple, 10-minute meeting where representatives from the town of Culpeper and Culpeper County signed a historic memorandum of understanding that would pave the way to a regional water/sewer authority and a town boundary adjustment.

Two hours, five votes, a few shouting matches, several curse words and one "caucus" later, the two government bodies were right back where they started.

Eventually, both sides did agree on a memorandum of understanding that is scheduled to be signed today at 3 p.m. in the County Administration Building.

Given the friction between the two governments, however, spectators left last night's meeting taking bets on whether or not today's signing would actually take place.

Last Thursday night, it had all been settled. After two hours of negotiating, it was agreed that the town would take in a substantial amount of county land -- mostly commercial and industrial -- around its eastern and northern borders in exchange for placing its sewer and water infrastructure in a regional water/sewer authority.

That would both help the town expand in a logical manner and preserve the county's state sewage treatment allocation.

But town Councilman Jim Risner was absent from last Thursday's meeting, and he immediately began expressing concerns about the MOU and picking parts of the document apart.

Both his fellow councilmen and supervisors reminded Risner that this was just a MOU and not a binding agreement, but he would have none of it.

"While it's not legal, there are some bindings to it," he said.

Risner suggested minor wording changes to which the Board of Supervisors agreed by a 6-0 vote (Chairman Bill Chase was absent).

But when it came time for the Town Council to vote on accepting the amended MOU, the motion failed in a 4-4 tie. Chip Coleman, Steve Jenkins, Chris Snider and Duke duFrane voted for it while Risner, Rimeikis, Bobby Ryan and Mike Olinger voted against the measure. Billy Yowell was absent.

There followed harsh words with Risner taking the brunt of the criticism, both from supervisors and his fellow councilmen.

"I've become fully convinced that [the Town Council doesn't] know where we want to go," Jenkins said. "I'm not shocked; I'm just royally disappointed."

Supervisor Larry Aylor told the combined groups that it was "showtime" and suggested that if a MOU wasn't reached last night, the county would proceed with an alternate water/sewer plan with a private company.

And a frustrated supervisors' Vice-Chairman Steve Nixon, who attended last Thursday's meeting despite that his son was in major surgery at the time, said, "I'm not willing to keep messing around with this."

But Risner held firm.

"I have a duty to the people who elected me," he said.

Following a short break and a few more heated ex-changes, the Town Council voted to accept the MOU, with Risner and Rimeikis still voting against it. A 15-year waiting period before another annexation attempt was changed to an amount of time "to be determined" and the word "should" replaced "will" in a clause regarding using Lake Catalpa as an alternate water source.

Two other minor wording changes sealed the deal.

But the action was not over. Both sides argued for another 10 minutes because the county, to protect its state sewage allocation, needed a final agreement in place by its Sept. 5 meeting.

That, too, was eventually resolved with acting Town Manager Tom Huggard saying it could be done.

When that final agreement is prepared, both bodies will vote on it.

If accepted, the regional water and sewer authority could become a reality by the end of the year. A state three-member panel will need to sign off on the boundary adjustment eventually, and that would likely take up to 18 months.


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