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Commissioners vote 2-1 to appeal court decision on water line

By a 2-1 vote Tuesday, the Williams County commissioners decided to appeal a recent court decision regarding right-of-way use for a water line.

There were two votes on the issue. On the first, Commissioner Terry Rummel motioned to sign the petition for work applied for by AquaBounty and the Village of Pioneer to build a water line in the county right of way.

Commissioner Bart Westfall seconded the motion, but then joined with Commissioner Lewis Hilkert in voting against the motion, while Rummel voted in favor.

Hilkert then motioned to appeal the decision, which Westfall seconded. He and Hilkert voted in favor of that motion, with Rummel voting against.

Westfall noted before the vote that the end of the 30-day appeal decision window would end at the end of this week, and due to scheduling conflicts, Tuesday would be the only day all three were together meeting.

“I’ll open the floor with the idea we have a decision to make, and our decision is that we sign the application for the work in the right of way and/or are we making a decision that we’re going to appeal Judge (Reeve) Kelsey’s decision and have it go to an appellate court,” Westfall said.

He added the commissioners have consulted with their attorney on the matter in executive session.

Rummel stated that in 2022 he, Hilkert and then-commissioner Brian Davis signed an agreement to allow the work in the right of way.

“I said at the time that if they were a public utility that I would sign and we had two lawyers say it’s not a public utility, and I’ve talked to several people at the State of Ohio and lots of different things and I thought for sure it was not a public utility,” Rummel said.

“Now we have a judge that came in and said it’s a public utility,” he added.

Rummel said considering that, as well as the economic impact the line could have for Pioneer and the North Central Local School District, he would be in favor of signing the permit.

“And I know that may not be as popular amongst everybody, but it’s great for the Village of Pioneer and it’s great for North Central schools,” Rummel said, adding the commissioners have received correspondence from them and others encouraging the permit be signed.

“The amount of money this is going to bring into their little community and to the taxpayers there is substantial,” he added.

Hilkert disagreed with the assertion the line is a public utility since the lines will be built by AquaBounty first and then turned over to the village, and the fact that there has been no proposed plan for future rates of water usage or how much it will cost for others to add onto the line.

“There’s just a lot of unknowns there,” Hilkert said, adding he wasn’t sure Kelsey understood all the issues associated with the permit.

“We have a private entity, Kidston Consulting, that owns the wellfield that apparently is entered into some type of agreement with AquaBounty to use that water,” Hilkert said.

“And then AquaBounty is going to return that water to the river,” he added.

Hilkert said the county’s attorney has advised them the cost of an appeal, which would be handled by a three-judge panel, could cost between $3,000 to $10,000.

“The decision that we’re making isn’t necessarily just for the Village of Pioneer,” Hilkert said. “This is a decision for 37,000 people that live in this county.”

He added taking into account the population of the county, and dividing the cost of an appeal, for example at $7,000, the cost is about 20 cents per resident.

“I think we owe it to our citizens to appeal it and let the three-judge panel make the decision,” Hilkert said.

Westfall said the commissioners appreciate all the feedback they have received from both sides of the issue since the decision was made and that he has debated his decision internally. He also mentioned he isn’t sure AquaBounty and Pioneer have made the corrections that were also asked for as part of the decision.

For him, however, the decision to appeal comes down to a legal question and not the economics or potential environmental impacts.

“I want to take this time to reiterate that this issue is dealing with the legal right to use our right of way and whether it was a public or a private entity using that right of way,” Westfall said.

“The issue is strictly legal, it has nothing to do with water consumption, it has nothing to do with big mega farms, it is strictly the legal aspect of being able to use our right of way,” he added.

Westfall added the commissioners are aware of the potential economic benefits to Pioneer and the school, but the legal issue remains.

“We also have to look at the future impact of all of our rights of ways in the county which affect all of our citizens,” Westfall said.

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