Ashe Plantation gets ally in water quality fight

An Ashe Plantation resident sent in this photo to HOA President, Sharon Decker on Oct. 8, Decker said this is just one example of continuing problems with water quality in the Mint Hill neighborhood.

Residents of Mint Hill’s Ashe Plantation are ready to join forces with a Florida neighborhood to try and kick their water provider out of town.

Ashe Plantation, located off N.C. 218, gets its water from Aqua, which provides water services to towns and neighborhoods across the country. One neighborhood Aqua previously served is Zephyrhills, Fla., but residents there – including Frank Reams, who will soon travel to Mint Hill – pitched a fit about what they saw as problems with their water quality until Aqua decided to pull out of the neighborhood.

“He’s dealt with Aqua in his own neighborhood for years – the same kind of problems we have, and has gone up to Tallahassee to bring the issue to the state,” Sharon Decker, Ashe Plantation homeowners association president said of Reams. “Because (that neighborhood) caused such a commotion, Aqua decided to sell them. Aqua got so disgusted that they are completely out of Florida. That’s what we want here.”

That animosity toward Aqua is a result of muddy tap water and high water bills.

On Nov. 13 at 7 p.m., Reams and others from the Florida effort will hold a meeting, partnered with Decker, and are inviting anyone in the area currently served by Aqua to attend. The Florida residents heard about the issues in Mint Hill through media coverage of the ongoing problem.

“They are going to speak in Charlotte and going to come and use PowerPoints to work with us,” Decker said. “They are going to workshop with us on how to get Aqua out of North Carolina like they did in Florida.”

While Ashe Plantation residents are somewhat new to the problem, it’s something Reams and his neighbors have been working on for some time.

“We have recently had success working with Florida legislature which passed a Water Study Committee bill,” Reams said. “In Florida, we organized the customer base and started a website to keep the customer base informed and updated on problems in other states as well as issues here in Florida.

“What we finally determined, after several bus trips to Tallahassee, was that we really needed to get some legislative changes made. We hope with the formation of this committee that we can at least get the playing field leveled as few rules exist to hold the company accountable for providing customer service that meets the customers’ expectations of the price of the service.”

Reams said his goal is to use his experiences in Florida with others dealing with Aqua and “share … what we have learned from trial and error here in Florida,” he said.

Mint Hill resident David Sims is working with Decker and Reams and already has questions he’d like to ask state officials. Among those are: rate increases in comparison to Aqua profits.

“North Carolina (is) far too eager to allow privatization instead of providing water and sewer services,” he said. “Aqua corporate profits (are) growing prolifically at our expense, a rate-controlled utility company should see smaller growth rates.”

Barry Shearin, chief engineer with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities, talked with Decker about the possibility of Ashe Plantation becoming part of the county system. But that doesn’t look likely, he said.

“(Decker) was curious about the ability to get public water into that neighborhood,” Shearin said. “But that could be difficult. We’re not allowed to move our lines without approval from the state of North Carolina. And the private system would have to sell them.”

Shearin said not only would money have to be provided by the state to purchase the neighborhood from Aqua, but Aqua would have to be willing to sell in the first place. Also, approval from the state would only come if there were pertinent health reasons for the move.

“The neighborhood is also about a half mile from the public water line, which would be a problem,” Shearin said. “A parallel system could potentially be constructed if the neighborhood were not purchased from Aqua, but that would still cost money and the neighborhood has expressed that they don’t want a parallel system. It would be very disruptive. We just don’t have the funding at the current time.”

Shearin said between extending the public water line and acquiring the private system, there also is a regulatory hurdle to overcome.

Decker said if the neighborhood was switched from Aqua to county water, the average water bill would be $35 per month.

“I paid about $300 (a month) for three years,” Decker said. “People here are still paying upward of $200 (a month). Why does it cost so much? If the county can give us water for $35 per month, why is the overhead so much that they have to charge us $200 per month for water we’re not even using?”

Most residents are purchasing bottled water at $8 to $18 per unit, Decker said. This often totals about $144 on top of the $200 Aqua bills each month.

Many in the neighborhood are so discouraged that they don’t want any part in the issue, Decker said.

“The people don’t want to be involved because they don’t think we’ll be away from (Aqua).”

Aqua President Tom Roberts said this week the company has only received two water quality complaints since the public meeting he attended in Mint Hill Sept. 7. Roberts said the company is being “more prudent” with Ashe Plantation than in other situations and well maintenance is ongoing.

“One well can satisfy the demand,” Roberts said. “We’re taking our time to make sure everything is done right. I’m not sure I would classify this as an ongoing problem.”

Roberts said he made it clear to residents that he would be willing to come back and meet with the community again if necessary.

“Quite frankly, we don’t have a lot to say yet,” he said. “For the time being, we have not really had any issues.”

Decker said everything hinges on involvement from the community of 166 homes.

“We need everyone in (Mecklenburg) County that’s on (Aqua) to come out,” she said. “If they want to get off of Aqua, they need to come to this meeting. We need to do this together. We are getting so much help on this, Mint Hill leaders, (Mecklenburg) County. I will not let this drop. I cannot stand by and let Aqua North Carolina, as a private utility company, hold us hostage with dirty water and high water bills. Now it’s up to the people.”

The location of the Nov. 13 meeting hasn’t been finalized.

For more information, call Sharon Decker at 704-573-2245 or email decker1946@gmail.com.

For more information on the efforts in Florida, visit www.floridawaterstudy.com or www.flowflorida.com.

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