Final easements obtained for Step II sewer project

The city of Fairfield has obtained the final easements necessary to begin construction on a major sewer improvement on the east side of town.

The city will lay about 7 miles of new sewer line between Lamson Woods and Maharishi University of Management. To do that, it had to obtain easements on more than 70 parcels of land, affecting about 35 property owners. An easement refers to the right to use someone else’s property for a specific purpose.

Property owners were compensated according to how much of their property was disturbed by the new sewer. When the value of the property exceeded $10,000, the city hired an appraiser and a review appraiser to determine the value of the easement.

Eminent domain

Obtaining easements from property owners is a form of eminent domain, which refers to the government expropriating private property for public use. Fairfield City Attorney John Morrissey said that, in this particular instance, the city was able to come to an agreement with all of the property owners affected, meaning the city did not have to obtain the easements by going to court.

“Sewer easements are a taking, but next year this time, nobody will feel like they’ve gotten taken,” Morrissey said. “The sewer will be 12-15 feet in the ground, and grass will be growing in the yard.”

“I won’t promise the grass will be growing a year from now,” joked Fairfield City Engineer Melanie Carlson, “but it will eventually.”

The portion of the sewer construction from Lamson Woods to M.U.M. is known as Step II. Step I referred to replacing sewer line from the sewer treatment plant to Lamson Woods. That is already done and covered with dirt, with only minor landscaping left to do. The city spent about two years obtaining easements for Step I, and another two years obtaining them for Step II. The city spent about $300,000 on easements for Step II.

Construction on the sewer line in Step II should begin in July or August, and finish by spring 2021.

Why not use existing easements?

Carlson explained why the city needed to obtain new easements from property owners, when it already obtained them years ago when it built the existing sewer. The problem is that the city can’t put the new sewer in the same place as the old sewer without shutting it down completely, and it doesn’t want to do that. That means the new sewer line will take a slightly different route. In some places, the new sewer will be as far as 200 feet from the existing sewer.

The new sewer line will be designed to move manholes out of the flood plain. In particular, that means moving them away from Crow Creek, so that when Crow Creek rises from rain, it doesn’t flood the sanitary sewer.

The width of the main increases as it nears the sewer plant southeast of town. Carlson said the pipe is so large when it reaches the plant that she can walk through it. The new, larger pipe will prevent the manhole covers from blowing off, as they have before from pressure built up in the smaller pipes.

Consent order

The Environmental Protection Agency and Iowa Department of Natural Resources have ordered the city to upgrade its sewer conveyance system to avoid overflows. During a heavy rain, rainwater seeps into the sanitary sewer (instead of going into the storm sewer like it’s supposed to) and overloads the sewer treatment plant. This forces the city to dump untreated wastewater into creeks, though the amount of waste is highly diluted from the rain.

“By the time the project is all done, we will have satisfied a consent order that was signed back in about 2007,” Morrissey said. “The Attorney General’s office was holding a sword over our head, threatening a fine of $10,000 per day if we didn’t fix our overflow problems.”

Morrissey said the city was able to negotiate a plan with the EPA whereby the city promised to make a series of upgrades if it were granted more time.

“We’ve done everything we could to comply [with the consent order from the EPA and DNR],” Morrissey said. “We’re doing big things in water and sewer for a town our size.”