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Sewer pipeline: work begins, easement problems continue

Staff Writer

While the Pagosa Springs Sanitation and General Improvement District is still scrambling to secure easements from property owners, construction has already begun on the new pipeline and pump station project that will convey sewage from the town’s current treatment lagoons near Yamaguchi Park to the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District’s Vista Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The joint work session with the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners, held at 8 a.m. on May 9 to discuss other matters, was restricted to one hour because mayor Don Volger said he and town manager David Mitchem had an emergency meeting at 9:15 concerning the pipeline.

Subsequently, emergency executive sessions were scheduled for Saturday, May 10, and Tuesday, May 13, to discuss strategies for negotiations concerning pipeline easements with town attorney Bob Cole.

In a phone interview with SUN staff on Wednesday, May 14, Mitchem explained that the meeting on Tuesday was canceled, but during the Saturday meeting, staff was given direction on how to proceed with negotiations to secure the necessary easements.

“We are still actively in negotiations on the easements,” Mitchem admitted. He also confirmed, “Construction has begun between pump station two and the PAWSD plant.”

While PAWSD is responsible for project management for the entire project, the securing of easements from property owners was divided between the two entities, with PSSGID being responsible for the section between the first pump station located at the sewer lagoons and the second pump station located approximately halfway between the lagoons and the Vista plant.

In the materials accompanying the agenda for today’s meeting, sanitation supervisor Gene Tautges wrote, “Much work has and continues to be done regarding this project.”

Tautges reported that the easements from the Town of Pagosa Springs, the Archuleta School District and the Colorado Timber Ridge Metro District have been secured, and the one for Alpine Cascade should have been done by May 18.

Then Tautges’ report stated, “David Mitchem is in the process of negotiating with the Quintana family as of this writing.”

“They have definitely been scrambling,” Steve Graham told the SUN in an email. Graham’s property is located adjacent to the Quintana property. “Hammerlund (the construction company hired by PAWSD) is poised to issue some hefty delay change orders.”

Graham is the property owner who first brought to light the fact that PSSGID was having trouble securing easements. He refused to allow the pipeline to cross his property, and the town has since threatened to file an eminent domain suit to have a court force Graham to grant an easement.

“I have been told that on Saturday,” Graham continued, “the PSSGID authorized David Mitchem to take some money and travel to Denver to contact the Quintanas (my neighbors to the south) in attempt to purchase easement from them. We shall see how that goes. It was said that this is the first attempt made to contact them by the town.”

According to Tautges’ report, Mitchem will debrief the PSSGID board at today’s meeting concerning the results of his negotiations with the Quintanas.

“In my opinion,” Graham concluded, “these are more (potentially futile) efforts in the wrong direction, at the wrong time, with the wrong person at the lead. They should just spend another $200k and keep it in the road (just a bit further north) and then cross (public) school property, instead of trying to pry something from private individuals. It is only about 2.5 percent cost increase on the project and then the community would have very vital, multi-functional corridor for our future. Costs for this debacle are beginning to mount.”

PSSGID board member Tracy Bunning, who also owns a local title company, has been openly critical of the way the situation has been handled. SUN staff asked Bunning to explain where the town went wrong in the easement acquisition process, but he said that, until there is ink on paper, it’s really not a good idea to comment.

He would neither confirm nor deny that the Quintana property might be used as an alternative route, thereby avoiding the Graham property.

During the public comment portion of the May 6 board meeting, local businessman J.R. Ford said, “I would like to share with the board how disappointed I am with how the whole negotiations were handled by your legal team. As you know, the property that I represent, early on we made the statement of what we would do for the easement. We negotiated it out with one set of attorneys for PAWSD. That took way longer than it should and created problems. Requests were repeatedly made that should have never been made.”

Ford explained that once everything was worked out with PAWSD, there were delays, and a new legal team, this time from the PSSGID, came back with a new easement request that disregarded everything that had already been worked out earlier.

“Early on we went into this and did not request that our legal fees be paid,” Ford concluded, “but now to have this all start back up thirty days ago, and us having to spend…”

Ford paused and then continued without specifying a dollar amount, “I know what I spent, what I signed off on for legal fees, and if I’ve done that you’ve probably done a hundred and fifty percent of that, and that’s just on one easement, and now it has been done for the third time.

“I’m very disappointed in the way we are spending our tax dollars. I’m very disappointed that this is how we operate.

“You have some real problems there. If your other issues are being handled like this, I’m very concerned, because this was a very simple easement where you had a party that was willing to accommodate you. For us to have the burden of what we’ve had to do to get here, both legally and financially, is just sad that we’ve encountered this.

“We’re not asking for money back, but we are saying that if you did this with us when we were willing, I wonder what has happened, and what the legal bills look like, for everybody else.”

Ford said he didn’t want to go into any more detail during a public meeting.

“You aren’t the only one who has been frustrated and disappointed with the process,” board chairman Don Volger responded. “Knowing a little bit more about how we came to this point, it’s still frustrating and disappointing, but we are where we are, and right now we are trying our best to fix it, and I hope we learn on future projects, just like you said. This shouldn’t have happened.”

ed.fincher@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on May 22, 2014.