File shot of the Dade Water Board.
One bombshell that emerged from Friday morning’s regularly monthly meeting of the board of directors for the Dade Water Authority was that the much-heralded luxury hotel currently under development next door in Walker County has made no arrangement with the authority for water and sewage service.
“They’re doing all this coordinating with Walker County,” said board member Eddie Cantrell. “Are they doing any coordinating with us?”
No, said Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley, who also chairs the water board. “As far as I know, Doug hasn’t been invited to any of their planning meetings.”
He referred to Dade Water Authority manager Doug Anderton, who was at a training conference on Jekyll Island and did not attend the May 18 meeting. The authority was represented at the meeting by Sherri Walker, Anderton’s whiskey-voiced assistant manager, who said the water authority was as much in the dark about arrangements at the hotel as the water board.
Shannon Whitfield, Walker County’s sole commissioner, has worked closely with developer Duane Horton to facilitate construction of the planned McLemore Resort “upper upscale” hotel atop Lookout, granting tax incentives and leading cheers for the project. But Dade County boss Rumley said Whitfield seemed unaware that the hotel had made no contact with the Dade Water Authority, which would have to supply water if the hotel's taps are to issue any.
“There’s no water on Lookout Mountain but Dade Water,” said Rumley.
Rumley said he’d met Commissioner Whitfield at the monthly regional meeting of northwest Georgia county and city leaders last Thursday and Whitfield had announced glad tidings: Funds had been boosted and plans had been altered to bump the planned McLemore Cove hotel up to 262 rooms. “I said, Shannon, where are you going to get all your water and your sewer?” said Rumley. He said Whitfield had told him Duane Horton had it all lined up with the Dade Water Authority and had seemed surprised to learn that such was not the case. “It just blew his mind,” said Rumley.
“It seems to me the first thing we ought to do is run up a red flag and say, y’all need to hold up until we figure what’s going on,” said H.A. McKaig, another water board member.
“How did Dade County get on the hook for this?” asked Eddie Cantrell.
(Photo: A Walker County man studies a slide presentation of the planned McLemore Resort hotel at a June 2017 meeting hosted by Walker County.)
The water authority’s Sherri Walker went over the history, explaining that years ago, Anderton and the water board had signed a contract with Randy Baker, developer of the golf resort then called Tauqueta Falls, to share responsibility for the sewer system that had been built to serve the golf course there. “Well, they failed and it got dumped in our lap,” she said.
In fact, when the housing market collapsed and developers began going belly-up in the 2009-10 time frame was the first the Dade County Commission learned it had a sewer system on Lookout Mountain. Dade is a residually rural county whose sanitary needs are served mostly by septic tanks. Trenton has a city sewer that runs south to the Four Fields area. A smaller system serves the Highway 299 area, pumping sewage north to Chattanooga. The discovery of this “stealth sewer” in Walker County sent a shockwave through county government that resulted in the reorganization of the water board and the appointment of the county executive as its chairman.
Since then, Rumley, when asked about the golf course sewer throughout the years, has denied that it’s been a burden to the county, saying it realized a slight profit to the water company. At the meeting, though, Sherri Walker seemed to indicate it wasn’t a gold mine: “We have a tremendous time trying to capture revenue from the sewer plant, “ she said.
One way or the other, a 262-room hotel is a game changer, according to Rumley. “That would be like putting in three subdivisions,” he said after the meeting. “We can’t supply them, not just the water but the sewer. There’s got to be some major, major money to come from the developer, or from whoever that investment group is, before they even think about it.”
What is Dade to do? At the water board meeting, H.A. McKaig was in favor of telling Walker and the hotel: “Y’all are out of luck. We’re not furnishing any more sewers.”
But Rumley explained that the papers signed years ago between the water board and Randy Baker make things more complicated. “That would throw us into default,” he said. Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division was another party to the agreement, and if Dade didn’t honor its end EPD could sever its access to state and federal funds. “Once they do that, you’re cut off,” said Rumley.
“So that’s probably not an option,” said Cantrell.
Rumley said the matter would doubtless come up in Dade as well as Walker counties in coming days. “We need to talk about this like tomorrow,” he said.