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Fremont City Council

Dodge County Courthouse.

For more than 90 minutes Tuesday evening, heated conversation flowed during the Fremont City Council meeting regarding eminent domain.

Following nearly 1 1/2 hours of discussion a resolution passed that would approve the use of eminent domain to seize 40 acres of land south of the Wastewater Treatment Facility to be used as an industrial waste lagoon site if monetary negotiations cannot be made with the land owners.

Public comment monopolized much of the discussion that eventually passed by a 5-2 vote. Councilmember Ellen Janssen wasn’t in attendance and Ward 1 Councilmember Mark Legband and Ward 4 Councilmember Matt Bechtel voted against resolution passage.

The core argument being brought forward by those opposed to the lagoon site being moved is that the City of Fremont isn’t making the lagoon site move out of the best interest of the public like it’s saying, but rather to appease Costco, which will likely become the city’s largest industrial waste client.

The original plan called for the three 200-foot by 400-foot lagoons to be constructed on-site at the Lincoln Premium Poultry/Costco Chicken Processing Plant.

A team of engineers advised the city that moving the lagoons would be more cost effective and provide a way for the city to earn money through salvaging renewable natural gas. The city then started moving along in terms of learning land value through appraisal.

The 40 acres of land are valued at $10,500 per acre, or $420,000 for the entire plot, City Administrator Brian Newton said. City Attorney Paul Payne will be in charge of making negotiations.

During a prior meeting, the Council had to approve the use of tax-increment financing to purchase the land because the plot is outside of the blight and substandard area, Newton said.

The lagoons as a whole will cost $10 million, with the cost being divided equally among industrial clients and Costco.

During Tuesday evening’s meeting Newton said that the decision to move the lagoon site has to do largely with the Wastewater Treatment Facility’s permits expiring and needing renewing in 2019. To comply with state standards, plant expansion is necessary. Prior to Costco coming to Fremont, estimated construction costs sat in the $20-25 million range, and with the lagoons being on site the cost would lessen to $12.5 million.

“The state informed us that we will need to meet new emission limits, particularly on ammonia,” Newton said. “And so with that in mind we started working with HDR (the project engineers) and started doing a preliminary design of the Wastewater Treatment Plant. About that time we learned that Costco was looking, we went back and talked with the state and HDR and put everything on hold not knowing what would happen, because we knew that certainly would have an effect on our treatment plant.”

Once Costco made the decision to come to Fremont, serious discussion about lagoons began. Currently, Hormel Foods is the city’s largest industrial client. The waste is currently taken from Hormel and routed down the domestic pipe running along Morningside Road.

“With Costco coming on we decided that it really was past time, and that we should have looked at lagoons earlier,” Newton said. “But now was the perfect time to build lagoons to handle industrial waste. With talking with HDR engineers, we learned we could save $5-$6 million alone in our cost with our treatment plant by running industrial waste through lagoons instead of the treatment plant, so we started down that road.”

Newton said Costco gave approval to build the lagoons on-site at the chicken processing facility, but that the city learned soon after that having the lagoons on Costco’s site would cost rate payers far more money.

During Council, Newton presented engineering documents mapping out alternatives in regard to the lagoons and said the only one that made sense financially was the Wastewater Treatment Facility site.

Newton said that eminent domain would be the absolute last means to an end if an agreement cannot be made with the landowners.

“With Council’s approval what we would like to do is start negotiations with the property owner to purchase these 40 acres,” Newton said. “If we can’t reach an agreement – and we intend to reach an agreement we will try our darndest – we have to have the eminent domain available to us simply because we have no alternative. If I can’t put lagoons at the treatment plant it will cost the rate payer a significant amount of money.”

While Newton argued that the move is in the public’s best interest, numerous meeting attendees disagreed.

Fremont resident John Wiegert argued that the lagoon move was something that directly benefits Costco.

“Eminent domain is not something to be used for private gain,” he said. “ … (The law) does not permit property to be taken for a private purpose. Economic development may be for the purpose with some public overtones, but giving for-a-profit company an advantage by putting the city’s name on a sewer lagoon and taking private property away from families that use it to make a living so that the company can profit is not a public use. This is a use strictly designed to subsidize a private for-profit company.”

David Hartmann, attorney with Yost Law Firm, practices law with Nick Lamme, the attorney representing the land owners.

“We wanted to be here tonight to go on the record and make it clear to all the Council members that the property owners oppose your resolution and oppose the condemnation of this land,” he said. “ … When Costco was coming to town it was largely represented through the public that there would be these lagoons largely to serve Costco and Hormel, which are two private entities.

“The lagoons were going to be located on Costco property, because Costco was willing to locate them there. Costco bought that property from a willing seller, and now, with two private entities – Hormel and Costco – the city is proposing that the lagoons be moved east of town and to condemn private property for the use of Costco and Hormel under the disguise of a public purpose.”

Ward 2 Councilmember Susan Jacobus made the comment that somewhere along the line, one major factor was being lost in the clutter of conversation.

“This isn’t something that was driven by Costco, actually, we fully intended on putting this down on their site, we had to put in lagoons,” she said. “If Costco wasn’t here the citizens of Fremont would be bearing the whole brunt of these lagoons, and we would be putting in no less than two – one industrial and one residential. … I’ve heard again and again that this is Costco, and Costco has nothing to do with this, you don’t even see them here tonight discussing this. This is something that we have to do, and if there’s some way to do this on less than 40 acres I hope like hell we do it, I don’t want to take anybody’s land. And we are going to negotiate for the best price we possibly can offer them under the guidance of the law.”

Dawn Wiegert, also in attendance, said she doesn’t buy that this decision has nothing to do with Costco.

“This does have to do with Coscto, because we learned tonight that your biggest industrial customer is Hormel, and Costco is going to be processing two million chickens, with 7 gallons of water per-chicken, you do that math,” she said. “(The amount of) Our waste water will be amazing, so if you really try to separate this from Costco you can’t do it.”

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