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High court ends town's sewer fight: Blacksburg's town council will not be held to a 1972 agreement to extend sewers in the Toms Creek Basin.
[March 03, 2007]

High court ends town's sewer fight: Blacksburg's town council will not be held to a 1972 agreement to extend sewers in the Toms Creek Basin.

(Roanoke Times, The (Roanoke, VA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Mar. 3--A Virginia Supreme Court ruling announced Friday disappointed landowners who for three decades hoped Blacksburg would extend the public sewer system in the Toms Creek Basin.

In an opinion posted to its Web site, the court upheld a 2006 Montgomery County Circuit Court ruling that C. Givens Brothers LLC, a family-owned land development company, should have filed suit against the town no later than 1985.

Reached at his West Virginia home after the verdict was announced, Givens Brothers principal Carroll Givens said he was "disappointed that the town is not being held accountable for what they said they would do."

Blacksburg promised in a 1972 agreement to extend public sewers to several sections of a 15-square-mile area of the basin the town annexed from Montgomery County. Sewers were built to some subdivisions in the basin, but construction ceased in the 1980s and the town declared its obligations fulfilled.

Sewer supporters argued that the Blacksburg Town Council simply wiggled out of its promise. In the past there have been lawsuits, but none went as far as the Givens case.

Mayor Ron Rordam wrote in an e-mail Friday that he was happy with the court's ruling. The council "will continue to work with our consultants and citizens to provide appropriate waste treatment strategies in the Tom's Creek Basin," he added.

Rordam, then a councilman, opposed a 2004 plan pushed by a slim council majority to build a conventional gravity sewer in the basin. It was ultimately defeated, along with two of its supporters, in that year's council election.

Many opponents questioned the wisdom of spending $17 million or more -- roughly half the town's annual budget -- on a sewer system they said would benefit developers and speed up growth.

The debate was contentious, and it eventually solidified a loosely organized group of environmentalists, slow-growth advocates and open-government supporters into the powerful Citizens First political action committee. A majority of current council members have ties to the group.

"This is really good news," Citizens First President Dave Britt said of the verdict. "We're not opposed to development or growth or even a sewer system in the basin."

The conventional gravity sewer promised in the annexation decree and supported by Givens, however, "would be very disruptive to the environment," Britt said. The group favors instead alternative sewer systems that will allow "limited growth."

While the court's decision does some harm to his company, Carroll Givens said he believes it does greater harm to the town. "Guiding growth is smart. Denying growth is not smart," he said.

"But this is the people they elected, and that's the direction they choose. Until people elect new representatives, I guess this is the way they'll go."

To Richard Schragger, a University of Virginia law professor specializing in local government issues, the Blacksburg sewer fight seems a small flash point in a much larger debate going on in communities across Virginia.

The central question -- whether government is obligated to invest taxpayer money in infrastructure to serve new development -- will be fought, not in the courts, "but in the political process between people who want the development and those who don't," Schragger said.

For now, Blacksburg seems to have struck a tense compromise.

Despite a lack of a centralized gravity sewer, developers continue to build subdivisions in the basin. Some use traditional septic tanks and drain fields. Others use alternative on-site sewage treatment systems.

Recent upgrades to the town's existing sewer system will even allow Givens Brothers to develop its land to some degree.

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