Seventeen residents of Pensacola’s North Hill neighborhood are suing the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority over a set of emergency sewage tanks which ECUA plans to build on North Guillemard Street.
The utilities authority purchased the former Medical Center Clinic property at 1750 North Palafox Street last year and plans to place two tanks behind the existing building on the site, facing Guillemard Street. The site is adjacent to ECUA’s Moreno Street lift station, which has been in operation since 2010. ECUA says the tanks are needed as an emergency backup in case pipes to the Central Wastewater Reclamation Facility in Cantonment are blocked, preventing raw sewage from overflowing into city streets. Officials have said the tanks will be empty “99.99% of the time” and will never produce any kind of odor.
But residents of the nearby North Hill neighborhood disagree, and they’ve mounted a campaign to stop ECUA from moving forward with the plan, distributing fliers and yard signs to nearby residents and even establishing a website: movethetanks.com.
Lawsuit filed Tuesday
Now, the North Hill residents are moving forward with a lawsuit, joined by four residents of neighboring Long Hollow, the North Hill Preservation Association, and three companies: FMC Management Services, Inc. and Antler, Inc., which have offices in North Hill and downtown Pensacola, respectively, and Anchor Properties, LLC, whose principal address is listed in Cantonment.
The residents and companies, represented by attorney Erick Mead — also a North Hill resident — filed the suit Tuesday in circuit court. They’re essentially arguing that ECUA’s plans to build the emergency tanks runs counter to ECUA’s commitment to move the Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant out of the city, and the 2009 interlocal agreement between the City of Pensacola and ECUA which formalized that plan and obligated $19.5 million in city funds to help move the plant.
“Resident and commercial plaintiffs will suffer particular and special damages,” the suit says, “because they are in particularly close proximity to the proposed tanks and will suffer from imposition of noxious odors and fumes, injuries to their quiet enjoyment of their properties, the City Streets and parks in the neighboring vicinity, loss of business, and injury to their property values.”
Melanie Nichols, president of the North Hill Preservation Association and one of the plaintiffs, said the suit was prompted by ECUA’s unwillingness to reconsider their plan. “Property owners have appealed to the ECUA board during two ECUA meetings, numerous phone calls, and letters to no avail,” Nichols said Wednesday.
Residents want land purchase thrown out
The suit argues that, because of the interlocal agreement with the city, ECUA doesn’t have the authority to construct a sewage storage tank inside the city limits without the city’s consent. City officials said Wednesday that a determination hadn’t yet been made about whether the proposed tanks would be allowed under the site’s c-3 zoning, but a review of zoning rules does list “major public utility buildings and structures” as an allowed use in C-3 zones.
The plaintiffs in the suit are asking a judge to invalidate ECUA’s purchase of the Palafox Street property, arguing that the purchase violated Florida’s open meeting laws because the intended use of the property wasn’t discussed at the November 2015 meeting when ECUA board members voted to buy the site. They’re also asking that ECUA be permanently barred from spending any public funds to improve or develop the site.
Asserting that ECUA’s plan constitutes a “fundamental or material breach” of the 2009 interlocal agreement, the plaintiffs are also asking that a judge order ECUA to pay back city funds already received and not be eligible to receive any future funds under the agreement.
ECUA counters’ residents allegations
Opponents of the tanks are pushing for ECUA to build the tanks at an industrially-zoned site such as the Escambia Treating Company Superfund site a mile and a half to the north. ECUA officials say that while the option hasn’t been fully explored, there are “real doubts” about whether it would even be possible to build at the site, and even if it were, it would likely increase the project’s cost significantly and require years of study and EPA approval.
“It would cost $6 to $10 million more to build the tanks in the suggested area and system reliability would be significantly compromised because of the additional ten thousand feet of underground pipe,” said ECUA spokesperson Jim Roberts. “The increased distance from the Moreno Street lift station would also create logistical operational concerns.”
ECUA has also fiercely disputed the residents’ contention that the tanks would generate noxious odors, saying that they haven’t received odor complaints about the nearby Moreno Street lift station, and that ECUA staff routinely monitors odors at all of its facilities. “The tanks are being built for emergency purposes only in order to prevent a sanitary sewer spill in the event of a pipe fracture or some other event,” said Roberts. “The tanks will be empty in all other instances and are not being built for any other purpose. They are emergency tanks only and may never be needed, but if they are, they will be the most important piece of infrastructure in the entire region.”
Tanks could represent public art opportunity
As we reported earlier this month, the proposed tanks could represent a public art opportunity in one of the city’s most artistic neighborhoods. Long Hollow is home to the First City Arts Center and the recently-formed public art organization Art Beyond Walls. Similar tanks in other cities — and even ECUA’s similar tanks on Pensacola Beach — have become canvases for colorful murals and other art installations.
Art Beyond Walls emerged out of photographer Rachael Pongetti’s Pensacola Graffiti Bridge Project that focuses on public art education, murals and installations. Most recently, the group created a public art mural called the “Gonzalez St. Project” at the First City Art Center. “I think it would be great,” said Pongetti earlier this month. “We’d love to get support for the labor for such a project. That would be awesome.”
ECUA officials met with Pensacola mayor Ashton Hayward and staff earlier this month to request assistance in leading a public campaign to seek citizen input on what kind of public artwork or designs would be placed on the tanks. City spokesman Vernon Stewart said the city is looking forward to working with ECUA and the community on moving forward in collaborating on the project.