Deckhead: Group wants county to require special-use permit for Canadian water bottling company

VERONA — Efforts by a group of residents opposed to a water operation at Seawright Springs will take their fight to the Augusta County Board of Zoning Appeals on July 3.

Robin Hawks, a member of Friends of Seawright Springs, said the group is asking the BZA to vacate a decision by Zoning Administrator Sandy Bunch to allow Ontario, Canada-based Flow Alkaline Spring Water to operate without seeking a new permit for the site near Mount Sidney.

“We want [the appeals board] to ask Flow to come back for a special-use permit,” Hawks said Thursday.

On Wednesday night, Hawks appeared before the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, requesting that supervisors stay any activity at the spring on the part of the company until the BZA can hear the appeal.

“We are concerned that Flow is allowed to operate during the appeal,” Hawks told supervisors.

Supervisors took no action following her request.

A request for comment from Bunch was unsuccessful Thursday.

On April 30, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office released a joint statement with other state and Augusta County officials announcing that Flow would invest $15.5 million to establish its first U.S. manufacturing facility at Seawright Springs.

But dozens of residents and property owners in the rural area surrounding the springs immediately began voicing their opposition even before the official announcement of the company’s plans.

The group, which has since become known as Friends of Seawright Springs, has cited concerns that a large-scale water operation may irreparably harm the spring that supplies the rural community with its drinking water. Area farms also depend on water from the spring for their livestock.

In addition, residents say any increase in the amount of large-truck traffic will pose safety hazards on the narrow country roads, which are often filled with students traveling to and from three nearby schools — Fort Defiance High, Clymore Elementary and S. Gordon Stewart Middle schools.

A Flow representative, in an email response to questions following the announcement that it would be coming to Augusta County, said that the company manages its “sources to ensure we only use a small fraction of the abundant water that nature provides, and we don’t interrupt the natural flow of spring water through the environment” and employs “rigorous water monitoring programs run by professional hydrologists.”

During the board’s May 8 meeting, Augusta County Administrator Timothy Fitzgerald, reiterated public statements he had made following the April 30 announcement.

Fitzgerald said Flow will be limited to nine semitrailers a day based on a 1996 permit issued to a previous landowner, keeping the daily draw to less than 100,000 gallons. Further, he said as long as Flow doesn’t expand its operation beyond that, the company will have no need for a special-use permit for the project.

He also said that as long as the truck traffic is within the permissible amount, it does not trigger a traffic study by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Since that meeting, Friends of Seawright Springs has retained the Harrisonburg law firm of BotkinRose to pursue its case.

Hawks said county officials are using a letter issued to a previous property owner more than 20 years ago for the basis of their claim for permitted uses at the site. The zoning administrator’s decision to allow Flow to operate under this letter is incorrect in Hawks’ estimation.

 “The 1996 letter basically says any changes will require a new permit,” she said. “[Flow is] pumping groundwater. [The owners] in the 1970s and ‘80s got their water from the catchment. …  This is a substantial change, but the county never required a special-use permit.”

She said that based on state law, all work at the springs should be stopped until the BZA hears the appeal.

“Everything the county has done … has not been following proper procedures,” Hawks said. “The county has to enforce Virginia code. … They just ignored that.”

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