Sept. 15, 2004 - Pima County officials lately have been responding to growing concerns that a proposed expansion of the wastewater treatment plant serving Marana may not take place quickly enough to deal with the area's explosive growth and avoid a potential construction moratorium.

Marana officials, meanwhile, are expressing confidence in the county's ability to provide the necessary sewage capacity to meet foreseeable development needs.

Voters in May approved the sale of $150 million in bonds for sewer improvements throughout the county, including $10 million for the expansion of the Marana wastewater treatment plant.

Initially, plans called for construction of facilities that would increase plant capacity from 150,000 gallons a day to 1 million gallons daily to begin in the 2007-2008 fical year.

In light of recent capacity concerns, "we may ask the board to make a change to the 2005-2006 fiscal year if we can support the request financially," said Kathleen Chavez, Pima County Wastewater Management Department director.

The expansion would take from two to three years to complete. Expansion of the plant as it operates today would not have been allowed on the current site under federal guidlines because of the blockage it would create in the floodplain. More efficient technology will require much less land for the plant expansion.

Concerns of a lack of county sewer capacity to serve Marana's development began emerging following a January memo from Chavez to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry indicating that "if no new sewer capacity is built, there will be building moratoriums in Green Valley within 15 years, in the city of Tucson within three years, the service area tributary to the Ina Road plant within 11 years and Marana within 2.5 years."

More recently, junior staff members with the county told officials of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association that sewage treatment capacity may not be available as soon as estimated, said Jim DeGrood, executive assistant to the town manager for special projects in Marana.

Assurances were later given to Marana by the county that wasn't the case, but "they've been promising us a treatment plant for years and years and with the staff shakeups that have occurred, we'd be foolish not to keep an eye on the situation," DeGrood said, describing Marana's wariness toward the county.

On the other hand, some may have felt Marana was crying wolf in terms of its constant warnings of development over the past four years and thus the county wasn't placing as much urgency on plans for expanded sewage treatment in Marana, DeGrood said, adding "a lot of next years have finally arrived."

An analysis of the plant's sewage treatment capacity last January indicated the plant could accommodate an additional 500 hookups, or about 200 a year over 2 1/2 years, but some fear those hookups may have to be made at a much faster pace to meet demand from such developments as Gladden Farms west of Interstate 10 near Tangerine Road, which will add more than 1,900 homes over the next 10 years, Jaguar Lane, a proposed 1,800 unit development west of Trico Road and north of Avra Valley Road, Vanderbilt Farms, north of Gladden, with 1,500 homes planned, San Lucas, a proposed development of more than 800 units, as well as others to come on line between the end of this year and the first quarter of 2005.

Also coming on line in January are the first of about 200 sewer hookups for Honea Heights, one of Marana's oldest communities, consisting of low to moderate income families south of Moore and east of Sanders roads.

A $990,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant, plus $110,000 in matching funds from Marana will make it possible over the next four years to convert the community from septic systems to the county's wastewater system with the construction of a main line and connections from where the septic tank lines leaves the homes.

The connecting lines, plus connecting fees of about $5,000 per residence, are to be paid for out of the town's general fund, said Kevin Thornton, manager of the engineering division of Marana's Public Works Department.

Construction of the main line will take about nine months and the connecting lines will be phased in over four years, although the town is trying to accelerate the process, Thornton said, adding that, at present, there are no concerns of enough capacity for the project or concerns about competing with private developers for hookups.

The town also is in the process of building two buildings to centralize its staff, now dispersed across six different locations. The $19 million project, totaling 110,000 square feet on 30 acres, is expected to be completed in March and will add to the sewer hookup demand.

"As we go into the remainder of the year and the first quarter of next year and start hooking up Honea Heights, Gladden Farms and anything else that comes on line, those hookups are going to go quickly," said Kevin Kish, Marana's deptuty planning director. "Is Pima County Wastewater in a position where they are going to be able to meet our needs by doing a plant expansion or are they going to be caught off guard because of the growth taking place?

"We just want to make sure they're on board and realize that with projects such as Jaguar Lane with its 1,800 units there may be more demand quicker than anticipated," Kish said.

"Clients of mine have indicated concern based on the number of permitted units that are anticipated in North Marana," said Jack Neubeck, a principal in The Planning Center. "As an indication, Gladden Farms has already had nearly 150 sales since it opened and if this pace continues, then with the hookups in Honea Heights, to properties along Greer Road and the municipal complex anticipated to open in March, the concern increases. The 500 hookups available in January may evaporate quicker than the expansion of the wastewater treatment facility can be accomplished."

An anticipated increase in building permits issued in Marana would seem to enforce those concerns. Last year, Marana issued 1,198 building permits. This year the town is on course to issue more than 1,400, according to the most recent data.

Currently the county, with the assistance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is working on a design for Marana plant expansion and a management audit is underway that should be completed in November, Chavez said. At that time, current water rates will be evaluated to determine whether they can support expansion or if rates have to be raised before any bonds are sold. Sale of the bonds is scheduled to begin in the 2005 fiscal year beginning July 1. The expansion would also be financed with $2 million raised from the sale of bonds approved in 1997 when county officials envisioned the construction of a much smaller plant.

The request to the board to advance expansion plans would have to be justified financially before such a request is made, Chavez said.

As far as current capacity, it would only pose a problem if all the projects were to come on line over the next year, but on some there is "still a lot to be done," Chavez said.

"We've been told by Pima County that, based on our permitting for the expected building going on in North Marana, there should be enough capacity, that's what we've been told," said Jaret Barr, Marana's assistant town manager. "Any development that comes in has to show a signed Pima County sewer card showing that there is capacity, so until someone comes in and says they can't get that card, we have to take the county at face value. We've been assured there will be."

Barr said Pima County Wastewater was probably conservative in its estimate of capacity and has capacity beyond 500 hookups.

"Everything we've been told is there will be enough capacity," Barr said. "They understand what's going on here. We've kept them up to date on plats and until we see something to the contrary, we have to believe them.

"I haven't heard anything from the builders, developers or Pima County that would put the town in some sort of panic mode as far as sewer capacity," Barr said. "There are certainly a lot of rumors and conjecture out there, but everything we've seen says capacity is there for any development that will come in. We've been in constant communication with Pima County about the development going on and the town feels comfortable with the assurances that are being made."

Michael Carlier, a representative for the Vanderbilt Farms development, said that before the sewer bonds were approved by voters, county officials told the development community they would have to pay sewer fees in advance to have the increased sewer treatment capacity they needed if the bond issue didn't pass.

Since its passage, that issue hasn't been resolved, but "the bottom line is I'm comfortable the sewer capacity will be there when I need it because I know the town will step in and take it over and provide it themselves if the county doesn't," Carlier said.

Dean Wingert, senior vice president of the Forest City Land Group, developers of Gladden Farms, described the county's plan to advance scheduling of expansion if necessary as "reassuring" in light of the company's sewer service agreement with the county and the fact that it has completed a seven-mile sewer line from the property to the treatment plant and is paying about $1,500 per lot in sewer connection fees.

Bob Zammit, manager of the BCIF Group, developers of the San Lucas development, declined to comment on the availability of sewer capacity.

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