Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Could the city and the county work together on what could be a groundbreaking issue?

At first blush, the new "time of transfer" sewer discussion may seem just an expensive little headache for a few small clusters of upscale homes on the south side of the lake, and of little concern to the bulk of us.

However, the way this little issue is solved may have big implications for the City of Storm Lake and Buena Vista County for generations to come.

Even the homeowners who stand to foot the big bills don't argue too much with the spirit of the regulation. A lakefront home is a quality-of-life bonanza, and with it comes the responsibility to help care for the natural resource. Beautiful Storm Lake is one of the last major lakes in the region to not have a fully enclosed public sewer system. Those households with waste elimination systems that wouldn't pass muster at a time of property sale know they have to do something; and to their credit, seem ready to do something.

The question is, who's something will they do?

The county has a local engineering firm set to study the situation toward a potential project. Many Casino Beach citizens have petitioned to make a separate sewer district. But the city has also come out with a plan to extend sanitary sewer line around the lake to serve the residents - if they agree to be annexed into the city.

This is where it gets interesting, and stops being just a little south side issue or even just an environmental issue at all.

This could be huge.

The lake has always been a rural/urban proposition, something of a balancing act, with both municipal, rural residence and farmland sharing the watershed and for the most part getting along well.

The City of Storm Lake mostly governs the north side, the county, the south. They too, coexist pretty decently.

But these few miles, rimming the lake, is prime stuff, worth a pretty penny as is for property tax revenue, and holding the area's most phenomenal prospects for serious development areas in the future.

Storm Lake officials have made no bones about their desire to annex, it was a part of their goal-setting discussions for the better part of at least 20 years.

It's not hard to figure why. The city has long since become rather landlocked. Lake-view building sites are almost impossible to come by, and there are few enough spots to build at all. That limits potential growth of business and high-dollar residential projects.

City officials have also argued at times that the residents of the various other neighborhoods around the lake do their business in Storm Lake, use the roads and the library and the parks and the fire department and all of the other services without necessarily paying property tax into the city to help perpetuate them.

At least twice, efforts to annex Lakeside have been tried. Storm Lakers voted it down once, Lakeside residents axed it the other.

Some years ago, it was thought that water would be the carrot that would finally extend Storm Lake city limits around the lake, and it might have done so as rural residents looked to more reliable sources of safe water than small wells, but the era of rural water systems exploded at about the same time, limiting the city's leverage.

Now, there is no escaping sewer regulation, and that may be the last best hope of the city to grow outward rapidly in that key lakefront region, at least by voluntary means.

In return for the sewer service to the city's treatment plant, the residents would be expected to annex into the city, and pay the anticipated higher property taxes.

That is to be expected - it would not be very fair to in-town residents to cover the cost of expanding the sewer system to people who would not be a part of the city and its tax base. It's also easy to see why some south siders feel their arms may be twisted.

Remember, though, that the south side residents are trying to do the right thing. Both the city and the county are trying to take initiative that would also achieve better water quality protection.

Though all are seeking the best advantage for themselves or their entity, we are all basically on the same page. Doing the right thing.

Not only could it be confusing and devisive to force rural Storm Lake residents to choose between a county and a city plan for handling their sewer needs, such dueling proposals could mean duplication of services and perhaps unnecessary public cost as both would do the engineering and research to flesh out their plans.

Both city and county officials are quick to say they are not in opposition here, but the truth is that both surely desire to have that key area in their territory - as well as places like Bel Air and the country club.

It was once thought that booming development would run north from Storm Lake, following Wal-Mart, then that it would spring up around the 71 bypass. Neither really came to pass. The lake area is the real draw, both for city and county, in development hopes.

In the past, the Storm Lake City Council and BV Supervisors met together fairly regularly on issues of joint interest.

There is still some exchange of information, but perhaps this would be a good time to renew cooperative discussions.

It wouldn't be effective to hook every other house into an extended city sewer system, while half their neighbors went with a county or localized project.

This is the stage where it would be best to find what would be the best, most effective and most affordable possible solution to the problem. To find any and all available grants. To ensure that whatever we do may be extended to other areas as they develop, and that our eventual project has enough foresight that it won't be likely to be out of compliance in a decade as regulation evolves.

There are other issues city and county could work on together - bike trails, winter road supplies, services for the needy, etc. Gathering all the information and resources now should help prevent this from becoming a city-county tug of war.

And the real underlying issue has yet to be addressed. Will the south side one day be part of urban Storm Lake, or will it always be a part of BV County country?