BOONES CREEK, TENN. (WJHL) – Randy and Rhonnie Miller planted their roots on a parcel of land in Boones Creek more than 20 years ago.
The property, just off of Keefauver Road in Boones Creek, is crowned with a creek that runs through the middle that the Millers use to water their livestock. A farmhouse-style home is tucked into one corner and a wind chime on the porch provides the only sound on a quiet Friday afternoon.
Rhonnie looked out the window on a sunny afternoon to see two strange men placing stakes in her cow pasture. When she asked the men why they were on her property, she said they told her that the city was considering their property for a new sewer line.
It was the first that the Millers had heard of a possible sewer line cutting through their property.
“They came unannounced, which was just beyond belief that they would put two people out on anybody’s property, driving stakes, without contacting us first,” Randy said.
Too soon for answers
The surveyors left after placing stakes in a diagonal line across their property. The Millers noted the stakes followed the creek in their property and spanned across their driveway. If the sewer followed the stakes, it would slice their property in half.
They pulled up the wooden stakes so their cattle wouldn’t trip over them and began looking for answers.
Rhonnie said she began calling the city in May, but each time she said she got the same answer: It’s too soon to tell. She said she’s been calling once every two weeks since then.
“We’re just very concerned about the city being able to come in and do this to our property unannounced and then not be forthcoming as to what their plan is,” Randy said.
Planning a sewer line
Johnson City’s Water and Sewer Director Tom Witherspoon said this project is progressing the same as any other sewer project has in the past.
He said the new Boones Creek K-8 school is a magnet for developers, and the city is expanding sewer services in the area to drive new developers away from using septic tanks.
“If you have sewer available, we believe it’s a much more environmentally responsible method of treating the waste from those developments,” he said.
The contractor, Mattern and Craig out of Kingsport, began developing plans in April. Witherspoon said projects like these usually take between nine months and a year to finalize and added that affected property owners are notified when the plans are at about 60 percent completion.
“There’s always a willingness on the city staff, once we’re able to generate accurate information and what options may be available, to sit down with the property owner or have one of our agents sit down with the property owner and see what their concerns are and see if we can effectively meet those concerns,” he said.
He said the city is supposed to contact property owners before surveyors begin working on properties.
Since the plans are only about halfway complete, he said it’s too early to estimate where the sewer line will go or how deep it will be, which is why property owners aren’t formally contacted until the plans are more than halfway complete.
“It’ll be about the middle of September, and we’ll begin contacting affected property owners,” Witherspoon said.
The city will have to consider all the options before finalizing plans, which may or may not include placing a pipeline through the Millers’ five-acre property.
A sewer and a creek
The Millers say their concerns about the possible pipeline stretch beyond inadequate notification from the city.
Witherspoon said the pipeline being considered is part of a gravity-fed system, meaning that the pipes travel downhill to the sewer plant.
He added that it’s not unusual for these pipelines to follow streams or creeks. The Millers said they are concerned about a potential sewer pipe following the stream that waters their livestock.
“The most frustrating thing to me is just the simple fact that they will be disturbing something that is crucial to the environment around here and that’s the natural springs that run through this property,” Randy said.
New sewer lines can’t go in without an Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. A TDEC representative said Johnson City hasn’t filed for the permit yet, but the city is not far enough along in the plans to apply for the permit, which will greenlight construction on a new sewer line.
TDEC’s website says the permit is required when a stream, river, lake or wetland is being altered for any reason. According to TDEC, “the division must advertise the public notice” on the TDEC website in addition to legal notice in a local newspaper and placed near the project site.
A public hearing must be held if anyone requests one and advertised in a newspaper 30 days in advance, according to the TDEC website.
Answers in the balance
Finalized plans for the project are still months away, according to Witherspoon. The Millers said they will do what they can to keep the sewer line from slicing through the middle of their property.
Witherspoon said the city will compensate property owners for any necessary easements. The Millers are concerned that the easement will compromise any future plans they could have for the property as they won’t be able to build on top of the sewer line in case the city ever needs to make repairs.
“Potentially, in our minds, we could have utility services and workers out anytime they want on our land,” Rhonnie said.
“It’s shocking that any government official can just decide that that’s what they want and do it,” Randy added. “If there are options that would not interfere with someone’s life the way this option would with ours you would think that would be a huge, a huge part in their decision making.”
The city maintains that it is too early in planning to determine whether the line will cut through the Millers’ property.
Witherspoon said big projects like these could mean dozens of easements through different properties in order to bring sewer services to existing and future developments.
While the future of the project comes into clearer focus, the Millers said they are still reeling from the possibility of a sewer line cutting through the middle of their property.
“This property means everything to us,” Randy said. “It has become over the years a place that we’ve always thought would be a place where our kids could always come home to.”