Local couple concerned that proposed sewer line will cut through their property

David Floyd • Aug 23, 2019 at 8:13 PM

Rhonnie Miller was preparing dinner for her grandmother in mid-May when she looked out her kitchen window and saw two strangers standing by the red fence that runs through her property.

They were planting stakes in the ground. Her dog, Henry, a large Irish wolfhound, saw them at around the same time she did, and scrambled up from the porch, bounding towards them.

“They said, ‘We’re with the city,’” she said. “’We’ve been hired to come out and do some surveying. They are looking to do some infrastructure upgrade.’”

Rhonnie’s husband, Randy, went to the city’s offices the next day, which was where he said he first learned that the “infrastructure upgrade” was a proposed sewer line, which Rhonnie said the stakes indicated could stretch downhill and bisect their small farm on Keefauver Road along the red fence that runs next to their driveway. She said they were not contacted ahead of time about the men being on their property and have since removed the stakes.

The men were from Mattern & Craig, an engineering firm with a local office that Johnson City has hired to put together the preliminary and final designs for the Upper Reedy Creek sewer line project.

“The project involves trying to get sanitary sewer service in what is called the Reedy Creek drainage basin,” said Tom Witherspoon, the director of water and sewer services at the city. “Currently, there’s very limited sewer service available with very limited capacity. We have had a number of inquiries in the past five years about trying to expand sewer service in that area for future development.”

Witherspoon said the city anticipates those requests will become more frequent now that the new Boones Creek pre-K-8 school is complete. He said there’s a lot of vacant acreage around the Upper Reedy Creek basin, which is where the city anticipates the pressure will be to provide services.

“About the only one that’s missing out there is sanitary sewer service,” Witherspoon said.

The city said staff apologized to the Millers for the lack of communication and reminded the engineering firm that the city requires property owners be notified before stepping onto their property. A representative of Mattern & Craig said Friday an apology has been issued to the couple, and engineers and surveyors have contacted the Millers by phone ahead of time on all subsequent visits to ask for permission to step on their property.

Witherspoon said the construction plans for the sewer line project are only about 30% complete, which means it is too early to say whether the line will go through the Millers’ property. According to the city, staff told Miller on Aug. 12 that Johnson City has not made a final decision about the design of the project and that staff would contact her and Randy in several weeks to provide an update.

Gravity sewers, the city said, usually follow drainage-ways and low-lying areas, which can require the city to get easements from property owners. Installing gravity sewer lines, Witherspoon said, is more cost-effective than a putting in a permanent pumping station, which are powered with electricity and have to be checked routinely.

“Gravity sewers go back a number of centuries, and that is the least-costly method of providing service, both to the people you’re providing service to and to the rest of the customers that we’re investing their money in,” Witherspoon said.

Miller and her husband bought their roughly five-acre plot, which is not within the city limits, in 1996 and built their home there in 1997. The property acts as a “gentleman’s farm” and is home to cattle and horses, which were lounging in the shade late Friday morning. The Millers have several springs on the property, which provide fresh water to the animals.

Sitting on the porch, Miller explains that she and her husband bought the property thinking they would have enough land for their kids, who are now 18 and 20, to build starter homes, something she’s concerned won’t be possible if the city gets an easement to put a sewer line in. She’s also concerned the sewer line would contaminate their fresh water source, which is something that Witherspoon said the city would certainly take into consideration as part of the final design of the project.

Miller said she and her husband feel like they’ve been left in the dark about the city’s plans. As is, Miller said her neighbors’ properties won’t be impacted as much as theirs will be.

“This is not an easement with a sewer line across the very front of your property alongside your road,” she said. “This is dividing our land in half.”

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