MUSKEGO — The city of lakes is deep into a water fight with school officials considering their options, including a lawsuit in light of the city seemingly set on forcing the schools to spend up to $1.2 million to hook its new middle school up to city water.
Muskego-Norway School District officials want to drill a well, costing less than half that much.
The two sides clash at last week's city public works committee meeting. After the turbulence settled, it became clear that some city officials are convinced that city water is close enough to make the school hook up. City ordinances say that if city water is readily available, developments must hook up.
School officials say water nearly three-quarters of a mile away isn't readily available.The ambiguity of "readily available" is fodder for attorneys, Rick Petfalski, Muskego-Norway School Board president and former Muskego alderman, said after the meeting.
"When is it not readily available? Two miles? A mile and a half? Five miles?" he asked. "Taxpayers of Muskego deserve an answer." All the homes around the future school site are on wells, he said.
He noted that the closest the city gets to describing what is readily available is in ordinance #660: 8-22-89 that says, "The city does require buildings used for human habitation and located adjacent to a water main, or in a block through which the water system is extended, to be connected with said system..." Neither of those conditions apply, here, he said.
"It would be sad to litigate this against our own city," Petfalski said. So far, the request has only been at the public works committee. The common council has not had its say.
Even so, Muskego Mayor Kathy Chiaverotti said in an email interview Friday:
"The city has been consistent with its position that municipal water is available and would be required for this project. Other projects have run a municipal water main longer distances."
Examples include Big Muskego Lakes and Champions Village, both of which laid about 1.5 miles of water main, and Kenwood Place, also more than a mile, according to a report by acting city engineer Michael Paulos.
Schools like developer
When asked if a school district should be regarded the same way as a developer who is in the business of making a profit, Chiaverotti responded, "Any entity that proposes a development is a developer."
The district plans to start construction this year on a new middle school on North Cape Road.
The water main the city of Muskego wants the school district to lay would create a loop connecting city water that runs on McShane Drive to the city main on Durham Drive. To create that loop, the schools are being asked to lay a main north to city water at the Tudor Oaks Retirement Living Community on McShane Drive. The new main also would go south around the school through private property to Hi View Drive, taking that west to link up with city water on Durham Drive.
Besides the ordinance calling for developments to hook up to city water if it's close enough, other concerns came up at committee. Those were about wells dying up in the area if the school dug a well, whether the sprinkler system at the new school would need to be hooked up to city water to have enough water to protect from fire, and the presence of radium.
Petfalski said consultants doubt that the proposed middle school well would affect wells in the area. However, the state Department of Natural Resources would have to settle that issue, he said. The schools don't want to get DNR approval for a well, if the city is going to veto it anyway, he said.
As to fire safety, the schools' architectural consultant, Bray Architects and other school consultants said the well plan would provide adequate fire protection. A Bray representative also said two schools in the district served by wells have sprinkler systems. One has tanks to supply more water and the other will have a tank after the school is expanded. In all, the district operates five schools served by wells.
School officials acknowledge radium is in the water, but they plan to treat it.
"We can safely and cost-effectively treat radium," Petfalski said.
Frustrated after the committee meeting, Petfalski said, "They seemed unwilling to look at the science."
"We had a room filled with experts, a fire expert out of Chicago, engineers, electricians, it was more than conclusive that we had adequate fire protection and could provide adequate water," he said.
However, the advice of the acting city engineer was more convincing for Alderwoman Eileen Madden, the only member of the three-person committee at the meeting that also was attended by several aldermen and the mayor.
In an email, Madden wrote: "The facts are, it is my belief and the public works committee that the best solution for the water question for the new school is to be hooked up to city water. I am basing that statement on what we learned from our city engineer Mike Paulos PE. I also based my decision on the many issues in the past that the city has had to deal with in that area involving wells. (Shallow wells drying up, known radium issues in deep wells)."
But to Petfalski, the city's insistence comes down to the mayor wanting the school district to pay for building city infrastructure.
"She is building the infrastructure for development on our dime," Petfalski said. Having served as an alderman on the utilities committee that preceded the public works committee, Petfalski said that a looped system such as would emerge from the school's water main would build more reliability into the system, so if a main breaks, people would still have water. Also, the undeveloped land could be developed with city water right there, he said.
Chiaverotti responded that if the schools didn't pay for the water main loop, water utility users eventually would, which would not be fair in her view.
She said, "With regard to shifting project cost from the school district to the water users, this is neither appropriate nor good leadership."
Two other concerns may play into the situation. One is that the $700,000 to $800,000 in additional projected costs for city water may sap money that the district was going to use to install bathrooms for the first time at the Muskego High School stadium and to fix or replace the leaking high school swimming pool, Petfalski said.
"My fear is that this would put those projects in jeopardy," he said.
The other concern was one of fairness, he said. Numerous developments have been allowed to have wells when municipal water was right at their doorstep, he said. Those include Nursery Court that was built in 2006 on McShane Drive just west of Tudor Oaks, and Rosewood subdivision off Moorland Road, he said.
"My point is there are numerous examples of water readily available and not requiring hookup and here it's not readily available and they are making us hook up," Petfalski said.
Chiaverotti denies that Rosewood Estates had an opportunity for city water.
"This development was approved in year 2000. Moorland Road south extension (Janesville Road to Woods Road) was not built until 2002. Municipal water main was completed on Moorland Road September of 2002. Therefore, municipal water was not available for Rosewood Estates," she wrote.
The situation was similar for Nursery Court, she contends.
"The water main within feet of Nursery Court at the time of its development in 2005 was privately owned by Tudor Oaks and connected to their community well shared with residents in the area. The city cannot require hookup to a private water main. Again, municipal water was not available for Nursery Court at the time of its approval," she wrote. "After approval of Nursery Court, Tudor Oaks hooked up to municipal water due to radium being found in their well and turned the water main over to the City Water Utility."
Petfalski challenged that, citing public utilities committee minutes from June 2005, that say: "The water trust (Tudor Oaks/Lake Lore) has decided to connect to Muskego municipal water. The developer of the Nursery subdivision is requesting private wells for the six-lot subdivision. Because of the proposed subdivision's proximity to the water main the committee must determine if the subdivision should be developed on municipal water or private wells."
The committee's decision: "Ald. Patterson moved to allow the Nursery subdivision to develop on six private wells." Motion carried unanimously.
Rosewood, too, was allowed to be on wells, although city was going to be available by the time the subdivision was finished, Petfalski said.
"The Moorland project was being done at the same time as the subdivision was being developed," said Petfalski, who was on the public utilities committee at the time. "I just can't find the minutes."
Petfalski also challenged the operational costs for a well that the acting city engineer put forward at the meeting were grossly inflated.
"We have wells in five buildings and they cost less than $1,000 each to operate and maintain," he said.
Also, the district doesn't pay more to insure its schools on wells if they have an automatic sprinkler system with an adequate water supply, Bray Architects told the committee.