City OKs easement for buffers

COVINGTON -- The City Council has agreed to give Newton County a perpetual easement along the stream buffers at the city's Land Application System to help meet mitigation requirements for the Bear Creek Reservoir.

Newton County Attorney Tommy Craig told the City Council at a work session Monday night that the environmental impacts of building the reservoir must be mitigated by preserving, restoring and/or enhancing wetlands and streams. In other words, the county must "do good works in exchange for bad works," Craig said.

Bear Creek is expected to impact 136 acres of wetlands and 125,669 linear feet of streams.

The county has already identified several mitigation sites and the Land Application System is the last piece of the puzzle needed to get the amount of required credits to complete the mitigation plan, Craig said.

But Mayor Kim Carter wasn't ready to give the county a perpetual easement without something in return.

"We get asked over and over and over to participate and we usually do. We've needed some things in the last year or two that wouldn't even be heard," by the county, she said.

Carter suggested the easement be granted in exchange for the county granting a perpetual easement to the city along the Norfolk Southern rail line. Officials with the county and city have been discussing possibly purchasing the rail line for future use but have yet to take any action.

Craig said he was reluctant to agree to a swap when he doesn't know whether commissioners intend to acquire the railroad or if they would be willing to make the exchange.

"I think it's inadvisable to tie these two together. I think it would be a mistake, and I think it will not be well-received by a number of the commissioners. I don't know if that's a majority or not," he said.

Craig added that the property is of little use to the city and will be for the foreseeable future.

During the city's regular meeting, Councilman Keith Dalton made the motion to grant the easement without making it contingent on the exchange. The motion was seconded by Councilman Mike Whatley.

"My opinion is the reservoir should have been in 10 years ago ... We need to get this thing going as soon as we can. I'd hate to be the one to delay this thing another minute," Whatley said.

But, he added, "If this wasn't a water issue, I wouldn't second it or vote for it as readily as I'm going to. We've tried to work with the county, and the county has in the past on several issues refused to work with us. This may be the one and only time I'll vote for giving something to the county with nothing in return."

When reached at home on Wednesday, Whatley declined to give specifics on the issues to which he was referring.

Craig did not attend the regular meeting, but Carter directed comments to Commissioner Tim Fleming, who was in attendance.

"We're not going to make it a political football. We're going to take the high road. We would like some consideration for taking the high road and for participating in the funding of some things more than most cities do," she said.

The motion was unanimously approved, with Councilman John Howard absent.

The county will encumber 53 acres and maintain the 100 foot stream buffers at the LAS. Located off Flat Shoals Road, the LAS is a joint operation between the city of Covington and the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority. It receives treated effluent from two separate wastewater treatment facilities. The treated effluent is sprayed onto irrigation fields of pines and hardwoods, which are harvested for timber.

Craig said the county will own or have condemned all the land necessary to build the reservoir by Thanksgiving. A letter from Georgia Power Company giving its approval of the project required by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division is now in hand, he said. The Army Corps of Engineers should be ready to issue a permit after receiving the revised mitigation plan, he said.