Philomath City Hall
Philomath City Hall (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The city of Philomath’s plans to use a half-acre in the northwest corner of Marys River Park for a water storage reservoir just across South Ninth Street adjacent to the proposed water treatment plant remained intact following a Nov. 22 City Council meeting.

A discussion on the matter went on for approximately 2-1/2 hours and included public comments from seven individuals — six of those against the water tank’s location. A motion to place a 30-day moratorium on the project failed on a 5-2 vote and although it appears that a vote may have not actually been needed, councilors passed a motion to move forward with the project as planned by the same 5-2 margin.

On another vote, the council unanimously approved the idea of possibly expanding the park to the west side of Ninth Street and south of the current water treatment plant. The Park Advisory Board will take a look at the possibility.

City officials and councilors have been working toward the eventual construction of a new water treatment plant for years with the current facility outdated and failing. The plant dates back to 1985 and long ago outgrew its life expectancy. The parts are obsolete with operators being forced to implement creative solutions to keep it online.

The $16 million water treatment plant project includes the main facility, water reservoir plus a nearby pump station, and an intake and pump station on the river. The new plant will be able to handle approximately 2.5 million gallons per day compared to the current capacity of 1 million gallons per day.

The conflict at hand

On one side of the issue is a city well into the process with time and money spent on engineering, site preparation and permitting to construct a water reservoir in a preferred location near the new water treatment plant. The process had also gone through required public meetings at the council and committee levels, although opponents believe there was a lack of transparency.

The other side includes those who insist that the 28 acres of Marys River Park be left undisturbed and in its natural state as outlined as early as 1989 in a letter by the seller and in 1998 in a founders statement issued by the Philomath 2000 Project.

Mayor Chas Jones shared his perspective on the process, his involvement through the Public Works Committee and his interest in a past water master plan update with his background as a hydrologist.

“I know this issue has been discussed many times in public, so I feel like there’s some misunderstanding here,” Jones said. “I don’t feel like it’s been hidden whatsoever. I feel like some people may really have just come on board and realize this is an issue and all of a sudden they realized they wanted to come forth with it, but this isn’t the first time it’s been brought up in public or discussed by the City Council.”

As of Sept. 29, the city has spent $222,237 on site preparation and engineering for the water reservoir project — although some of those dollars also included work related to the plant site.

During time set aside for public comments, six citizens spoke against the proposed location of the water storage facility because of its location and challenged the city’s insistence that everything was done in public view. Councilors also received correspondence from a few more citizens voicing their concerns. Former mayor and councilor Van Hunsaker recalled that although nobody wanted the property to be developed, there was no formal agreement in place.

Jeff Lamb and Don Gist, both involved with the Project 2000 group, pointed to a founders statement signed in 1998 that those 28 acres were to be preserved in a natural state with no development. Gist was also on the City Council when the property was acquired.

The founders statement had been part of the city’s Parks Master Plan adopted in 1998 but it had disappeared when a new plan was approved in 2012.

A water master plan update approved in 2018 identified the preferred location of a needed water reservoir across from a new treatment plant, which would place it within Marys River Park. A previous water master plan had suggested a second reservoir be located at a high elevation in the northwest part of the city.

The city purchased 4 acres on the northernmost end in 1991 to be used for the construction of a civic center. That idea never panned out but the stretch along Applegate Street now includes a library (completed in 1993), City Hall (1995) and police station (2005).

Motion for a 30-day moratorium

Councilor Catherine Biscoe made the motion fairly early in the conversation to place a 30-day moratorium on the project “considering the expressed concern over this process and the amount of information that is necessary to review to make an informed decision.”

Brugato said a 30-day delay probably wouldn’t impact the project too much, although construction costs continue to escalate. Considering another site is a different story.

“If you choose to move the tank somewhere else, then that’s kind of a backup and redo,” said Chris Brugato, of Westech Engineering. “So that will delay the project a year or more. We’ll have to find a new site and the city may or may not own that site. And so that just kind of puts the whole project back at the drawing board a little bit to move it somewhere else. That’s a whole different impact.”

The possibility of moving the water reservoir only 100 yards or so to the north outside of the park and closer to the City Hall, something brought up by Jones, would also cause delays and cost more money.

“We would have to get new geotechnical information, new wetlands delineations, new cultural resource investigations, all that stuff would need to be redone,” Brugato said. “So that would back the project up again.”

Brugato added that if the reservoir continued to be situated close to the water treatment plant, an extra pump station would not be needed.

Moving the water reservoir to the west on city-owned land outside of the park, an area currently occupied by Philomath Community Services, would also be a problem, Brugato said, because it’s located inside what is identified as a floodway.

“I don’t think you want to build a water tank inside the floodway for a number of reasons and I don’t think it would be permitted,” he said, adding that a needed certification would also be an issue.

Councilor David Low wanted to know what the financial impact would be to taxpayers if the water reservoir part of the project started over.

“This is just a wild guess … if you looked at moving the tank somewhere else, we probably lose a year or year and a half, maybe even two years of time,” Brugato said. “And you’re probably looking at increasing the project cost by anywhere from 1 to 2-1/2 million dollars. … I’ve spent all of about 20 minutes thinking about that, so take it for what it’s worth, you know? That’s just an educated guess.”

Brugato added that if the water tank is moved elsewhere, an addition to the project would likely include an additional pump station. And that comes with more operation and maintenance costs.

Workman said keeping the project at a reasonable cost has been an emphasis from the start. In the case of the water reservoir, it was located on property that the city already owns.

“Throughout the project in its entirety, we’re looking at cost-saving measures, ways that we can save money so we don’t end up having to charge our residents more money than is necessary for these improvements,” he said. “It’s concerning to me that all of that is going to get pushed aside so that we can spend a little bit more time reassuring ourselves that this is the right location and that the engineers and city staff have done their due diligence and that this is a good location, a good process and a good spot.”

Concerns over $12 million grant

The city implemented a series of water rate increases to raise money for the new plant. System development charges from various developments going on in town added to the pot as well. But then came the good news earlier this year that the city had been awarded $12 million through a state grant.

If the project sees delays because of a possible relocation, Workman believes the $12 million could go away.

“I can all but guarantee you that money will not still be there two years from now if the project gets delayed out,” he said. “This is a project that was put out to the Legislature as shovel ready, as in permits are in hand, sites identified, sites are approved, we are all systems go, we are ready to move with this project and that’s why it got added to the list and what’s why we received the $12 million from the Legislature.”

Workman said he would be reluctant to recommend any long delays that would come at the expense of utility ratepayers.

“We just approved a rate reduction in water — I’d hate to have to pull that back because now we’re looking at an increased cost of a relocation of a water reservoir that frankly, staff was given the green light on years ago and we’ve been spending the city’s money preparing this site for this reservoir for years now,” he said.

Biscoe said the $12 million grant is tied to the whole project, not just the water reservoir, and that it might not be fair to say that the money for the whole project could be jeopardized.

“Just because we’re already this far down the road on this particular project, it does not mean that it’s the best decision for us to move forward,” Biscoe said. “And that is the hard decision that we’re sitting in right now … if it means moving the water treatment plant possibly, what is the best decision for the community of Philomath holistically, from a tourism, quality of life, trails and parks system … all of those things are part of this conversation, too. It does not boil down to just about money and time.”

Councilor Matt Lehman said if the project doesn’t move forward in a timely manner, he believes the city will lose the $12 million grant and that it would cost an additional $1 million to move it, plus the possible cost of property acquisition. And then there’s the delay with getting a needed water treatment plant online, which he said is on its last legs.

“I don’t want to gamble with my personal drinking water that we’re going to come up with a solution that is going to be amenable to everyone in the city,” Lehman said. “It seems like we’re having an increasingly difficult time finding a solution to which way the wind’s blowing and getting everybody to agree on that, let alone where we should put a major facility.”

The water treatment plant project has been delayed for pandemic-related reasons. Earlier this year, Workman said there were hopes to break ground on the water reservoir portion of the project late this summer.

The latest timeline shows hopes for a ground-breaking sometime next year.

Workman provided information on a timeline related to the park, including the December 1990 signing of an agreement involving the city, Project Philomath 2000 and Philomath Frolic & Rodeo that established responsibilities.

Workman said “nowhere in there is there any agreement that the city would maintain this park in its current condition, maintain the property for park purposes or any of that.”

In addition, a section in the agreement states that once the city holds the fee title, “the city shall have the ultimate and final decision-making responsibility concerning the maintenance and improvements of the park.”

The agreement remained in place from 1991-99, Workman said.

As far as the founders statement, Workman said it states what the group’s intent was with acquiring the property, but it doesn’t speak to the actual agreement that was put in place.

“I think the city has done a great job of honoring that initial interest,” Workman said. “I think if you look at Marys River Park, it’s a jewel of the city, it’s wonderful. … I think we’ve done a really good job of maintaining that intent, which was to keep Marys River Park a more natural, pristine area.”

Still, Workman added that the city mows the grass during the summers and it gets manicured with the planting of trees, bushes and flowers. He also pointed out that the property was not always in its once natural state but had been farmed.

“It’s not just a natural area, it’s a park, it’s a city park and it gets used a lot just like a park,” he said.

More viewpoints from councilors

During the discussion, Councilor Ruth Causey pointed to the importance of protecting the city’s water.

“Our water treatment plant is well beyond its useful life and I don’t want to compromise our city’s water supply,” she said. “This conversation regarding the water treatment plant and the reservoir were well publicized and some of the best-attended meetings that I’ve been to in this city. … I guess the minute you break ground people wake up,” Causey said. “But I think people also have to realize that we need a secure water supply and we don’t have it today.”

Biscoe said she’s heard from citizens who are against the idea of the water reservoir going inside the park.

“Everyone I have engaged with is in distress about it,” she said. “Just because we are this far along on the project doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for Philomath.”

Brugato said that the water reservoir provides more than just storage.

“It’s also providing chlorine contact time for the disinfection process,” Brugato said. “It does provide storage but it also provides a treatment function at this location. … and at the end of the day, reducing the overall cost of the public improvements that are needed. So that’s why this site was chosen.”

Brugato didn’t have the exact number at hand — he didn’t do the detailed engineering on that facet of the project — but estimated that the top of the tank would be 15 to 20 feet above the existing ground level.

Workman said that when the water reservoir is constructed, it would only impact South Ninth Street and not the South 11th entrance nor would it limit any access.

“The only part that would be kind of lost for use would be that far northwest corner during construction … then once the reservoir is built and done, then that area would be opened up again,” Workman said.

Councilor Teresa Nielson after listening to visitor comments and taking in the information seemed surprised that the area being talked about was a half-acre.

“It’s a relatively small corner of the park … part of the reasoning that went into identifying this location was it’s a large park area and it’s a relatively small footprint that the reservoir would be taking up,” she said.

Biscoe said she voted against the motion for the project to continue “because I believe we do not have adequate information and confirmation of all permits, all studies, and we are not acknowledging the agreement …”

Councilor Jessica Andrade said she voted nay because “I think that it’s really important to continually re-evaluate what our community values and prioritize and I think this is one of those cases that we need to heavily reconsider placement of the water reservoir.”

Lehman said the time has passed for the project to move back to square one.

“I think that public input is awesome and we all should consider it and there’s just a time and a place for it and three-quarters of the way through a multimillion dollar project is not time to re-evaluate the whole process from the beginning,” Lehman said.

Toward the end of the discussion, Causey made the proposal that the city consider expanding Marys River Park to the west. The city already owns the property that would be under consideration, located just south of where the current water treatment plant stands.

“I think we do have an opportunity to compensate our citizens for the land that we’ll be using in the park and we do have additional city-owned land to the west … and I see no reason why the park couldn’t be expanded into that area,” Causey said.

Workman said he would work with the Park Advisory Board on the possibility of bringing back a recommendation.

On another issue related to Marys River Park land, the council unanimously agreed to take a deeper look at a bioswale that had been proposed as part of the city’s streetscapes project. The possible loss of trees and other vegetation was among the primary concerns. 

A third topic related to the park was also discussed at the meeting about a proposal by Heath to rename it  “Marys River Park and Natural Area.” After discussion, it was decided on a unanimous vote that Jones would approach the Grand Ronde and the Siletz tribes to see if they would have interest in including a native reference as a subtitle to the name of the park.

In other business, the council approved ordinances with code changes to landscaping, fences and hedges (5-2) and industrial zone building standards (7-0). The council tabled the second reading of an Economic Opportunity Analysis as an appendix to the city’s comprehensive plan (7-0).

Biscoe made a motion to consider the possible formation of a committee to address natural and cultural resources but with the meeting running long, Jones asked that it be tabled to a future meeting.

The council went into executive session to discuss the performance evaluations of public officers and employees. The council came out of the closed session and approved on a 5-1 vote (Lehman no longer at the meeting) the distribution of a press release on the city manager’s evaluation.