We want the water — but not your water treatment plant.
That’s the message a crowd of residents of Mesa del Caballo have delivered to the Payson Town Council in a series of meetings, petitions and e-mails.
The dispute centers on a Forest Service rating system that unexpectedly made a 10-acre parcel right next to the subdivision the top site for a Payson water treatment plant.
The delivery of Blue Ridge water after it goes through the treatment plant will permanently solve vexing water shortages in the 400-lot subdivision and probably provide high-quality water cheaper than Mesa del Caballo residents can pump it out of the ground. However, the residents who have spoken have almost all opposed putting the treatment plant next to the subdivision.
“My house is right in the middle of this,” said Bear Sherfey. “I bought my house out there in 2008 precisely because I had access to the National Forest. I had a beautiful view. I can see stars. There’s no noise. Now you want to place this in my yard.”
Candice Mueller said “people who purchased those properties because they backed up to forest land will no longer have that. Their property values will fall. So will the rest of ours.”
“It doesn’t make us feel any better that no one talked to us,” said Dale Mueller.
“All of a sudden this system rates this site the highest. It’s a lot like the whole Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas thing —when she came out with her charges, the timing is what made the whole thing look a little suspect,” he said at a work study session last week before the town council.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans asked, “What would our purpose be in trying to keep you from knowing about that site?”
The protests followed the discovery that the Forest Service gave the top ranking to a 10-acre parcel over the back fences of about six Mesa del Caballo residents in Payson’s search for a place to build a filtration plant that will feed Blue Ridge water into the town’s distribution system.
Six sites studied
The town studied six sites and gave top ratings to both the disputed 10-acre site adjacent to Mesa del Caballo and another five-acre site just north of the subdivision on the opposite side of Houston Mesa Road.
Mayor Evans said the Forest Service gave the 10-acre site a higher rating mostly because it would not create a new “infill” parcel of private land completely surrounded by National Forest land.
He said the town could actually save money if the Forest Service agreed to let it build on the five-acre parcel fronting Houston Mesa Road instead.
However, Evans said the Forest Service will likely dictate the final selection of a site, since it owns all of the land on which the town wants to build a filtration plant, power-generating facilities and a one- or two-million-gallon storage tank.
“The number of hours we have already spent in meetings is beyond reasonable expectations,” said Evans.
The mayor said the town has tried hard to make sure that the pipeline can deliver low-cost water to the unincorporated subdivision as well as Payson residents.
Brooke Utilities has run out of water for the subdivision repeatedly during the past two summers, forcing it to truck water in from Rye or Star Valley. Town officials estimated that Mesa del Caballo residents might have to pay between $1 and $1.50 per thousand gallons for the treated water, one-half to one-third what Payson residents pay for their treated well water.
“It’s relatively inexpensive water. We’re going to have a hard time explaining that to our folks in town,” said Buzz Walker, who runs the town’s water department.
Evans said “the Environmental Assessment process has been ... convoluted ... I was going to use another word. We have had to count the number of (pottery) shards we found along the road. It is crazy. We have had to do all these things that a reasonable person wouldn’t have to do, but short of that and short of having absolute power to make the decision, we’re doing all we can do.”
Evans said if neighborhood opposition does deter the Forest Service from approving the 10-acre site along the existing fence line, the treatment plant could end up near Home Depot. In that case, Mesa del Caballo residents could face far higher costs in connecting to the pipeline, which will run right past their front door.
Rick Nielson, a resident for 25 years, appealed to the council to find another site.
“We definitely want water. I just can’t believe that we have to put it on that site. Down to the southeast, there’s plenty of private property where you wouldn’t be ruining a lot of people’s views. I’m sure you’re trying to do the best job you can. But we’re just saying maybe this site could be moved someplace where you’re not affecting so many people.”
However, Councilor Michael Hughes, a Realtor, said the pipeline will significantly increase property values in the subdivision, which currently has some of the lowest lot and home prices in the region.
“If you’re having water issues, when you go to sell your property, that has a huge, huge negative impact. An assured water supply is one of the most important criteria in the value of property. I understand there are a few residents that back to the National Forest and that’s a value too. But it’s a balancing act.”
Walker spent most of the meeting trying to swat down rumors and reassure residents that the treatment plant won’t affect the neighborhood.
He said the treatment plant would include a nearly two-story, 6,000-square-foot building and one or two 16-foot-tall water storage tanks. The buildings and tanks would be kept about 200 feet from the houses, screened by existing, heavy growth of junipers. Walker said the structures will be pushed as far from the houses as possible and take advantage of the sloping terrain to try to keep the roof lines below the level of the trees as viewed from the back yards of the existing houses.
He said the site will adhere to the town’s “dark skies” ordinance, which requires lights pointed down at the ground to minimize the spill of light into the sky.
The plant will look like a regular commercial building with a pitched roof and an attractive facade, he said.
Inside, the plant will contain 10,000 tubes with microscopic pores through which the Blue Ridge water will filter, removing both sediment and bacteria.
Evans said the town’s first choice of a site was the parcel across the road that the residents also prefer, but the Forest Service seemed reluctant to approve that five-acre parcel and sell the town the land.
“Our first choice was the Shoofly site,” said Evans.
“It’s a lot cheaper to build on. We had some infrastructure issues in terms of getting water and power to that site, but those were not things we couldn’t solve. It wasn’t until we realized we probably weren’t going to get that site that we started saying, what can we do to ensure the citizens of Mesa del don’t get left high and dry.”