The Town of Clayton and County Commissioner Allen Mims spent all day Monday in Superior Court arguing about a sewer line the town plans to run across his land.
The Johnston commissioner is one of four landowners who refused to grant easements to the town, which then entered into condemnation proceedings to obtain the land.
Condemnation hearings like the one on Monday are typically arenas of last resort when parties can’t agree on a dollar amount. But the Mims family argues that Clayton need not encroach on its land at all.
Clayton has been planning sewer improvements on the north side of town for more than a decade, according to testimony Monday by Town Manger Steve Biggs. But the housing bust that followed the financial crisis delayed the need for those improvements. Now, housing is picking back up.
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Biggs said the town chose the sewer-line route in October 2004 but did not make it public until the town started buying easements last year. The route travels the north side of Sam’s Branch, which includes the southern part of Mims’ 200-acre farm. Mims said the town should have told him it was targeting his property; Biggs said the news should not have come as a surprise.
“I knew they would draw some conclusions from [the north Clayton developments] and that we would route the corridor accordingly,” Biggs said.
Mims said he learned in March 2015 that the sewer line would pass through his land, but he and Biggs presented differing accounts of that meeting. Biggs said he wasn’t aware of any objection; Mims said he was incensed.
“I had never been asked to put [a sewer line] there, so I didn’t know to tell them I didn’t want it there,” Mims said.
Days later, Mims’ wife, Lee, sent a letter to Clayton informing the town of the family’s position in no uncertain terms.
“[The sewer line] would encourage high-density growth on the north side of town,” Allen Mims read from his wife’s letter. It went on to say the family would not be a party to anything “that could be construed as our approval of this type of irresponsible growth.”
The Town of Clayton owns land on the other side of Sam’s Branch, across from the Mims’ property. That land was once the town dump but is now Legend Park. Mims wondered why Clayton didn’t pursue a sewer line on that land.
“I felt the best place would be on the south side [of Sam’s Branch]; the town owns property on the south side and could save a little money on the easements,” Mims said.
The property’s history as a dump made it a non-starter for a sewer line, Clayton argued. Testifying for the town, hazardous-waste expert Conan Fitzgerald said he had never seen a town run a sewer line through a landfill.
“I have not been involved with any and would counsel against building a sewer line below a landfill,” he said.
Fitzgerald used partially buried trash as evidence of the dump’s boundary. But Mims testified that people continued to strew their trash along City Road long after the dump closed.
The practice continues to this day, he said. “People’s habits die hard; they would just dump their trash on the side of the road,” Mims said.
Mims’ attorney, Lamar Armstrong of Smithfield, argued that the trash Fitzgerald found was therefore not evidence of the dump’s boundary and that Clayton had room for a sewer on its land.
While condemnation hearings are usually about money, the $5,300 Clayton offered Mims never came up. It instead became a hearing on eminent domain and common courtesy.
“They think they can do whatever they want; that eminent domain is that powerful,” Armstrong said. “They know this guy. They’ve dealt with this guy; they know he’s not going to give it to them, so they never ask.”
Town attorney Katherine Ross argued eminent domain plays a role in many of the things we require on a daily basis.
“[Without eminent domain], you wouldn’t have straight roads, straight railroad or straight sewer lines,” she said.
Visiting Judge Jack Hooks presided over the hearing. He did not say when he would issue a ruling.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson