AMERICAN FORK — Two Utah County cities believe a stinky composting operation could cost state and local government as much as $425 million in lost tax revenue and property value.
And in a last-ditch effort to solve an ongoing dispute, Pleasant Grove and American Fork are prepared to file a lawsuit against the Timpanogos Special Service District, the entity that disposes of all their human waste.
Calling themselves Citizens for Clean Air and Progress, the cities and several businesses and individuals sent TSSD a notice of claim Wednesday, alleging the composting produces "obnoxious and foul odors to the substantial detriment of the general public and surrounding property owners."
The claim basically puts TSSD on notice that the group intends to file a lawsuit if the issue isn't resolved. The sewer district has 60 days to respond.
Other group members include BMW of Pleasant Grove, Stewarts RV Inc., and Domo, a business intelligence firm.
Pleasant Grove city administrator Scott Darrington conceded it feels strange to contemplate suing a service district of which his city is a member. Pleasant Grove and American Fork are among nine cities represented on the 13-member TSSD board.
"We don't like doing this. We don't like having to go this route. We honestly feel that we have no options but to do this," he said.
The cities are customers of the sewer district, and sometimes customers have to sue, said American Fork city administrator Craig Whitehead, who sits on the TSSD board.
"It's just a notice of claim so far and I'm an advocate for the city of American Fork," he said.
City leaders say they have tried for more than two years to get the district to do something about the stench. The board shot down their proposals to move the compost to a more remote site or construct a building to house it, saying those options were too expensive.
Citizens for Clean Air and Progress don't have a problem with the sewer plant itself, which has resided on the shore of Utah Lake for decades and has taken steps to curb its odors. Rather, it's the compost business the district started about seven years ago. The smell kicks up when the 160-foot long rows of sewer sludge mixed with green waste are turned over.
Jon Adams, TSSD executive director, said the facility spent $5 million on a ventilation system and canvas cover, which the cities say has reduced but not eliminated the odor.
"People's tolerance levels are different," Adams said. "Whatever we do has to be in the long-term interest. In my opinion, hauling it off is a Band-Aid fix."
An economic study commissioned by Pleasant Grove property owner Dennis Baker estimates the bad smell has resulted in $75 million in lost tax revenue and property values, and could cost another $350 million over the next 20 years.
"It's an eye-opening number for us," Darrington said.
Businesses, he said, refuse to locate in Pleasant Grove and the area is gaining a foul-smelling reputation. "We want to get rid of that stigma," he said.
Two large tenants in the North Point Business Park are threatening to leave and other companies won't move in, said park owner Mark Robinson.
"It's killing me," he said. "Everybody expects to have clean air. When the wind blows in the wrong direction, it just makes everybody sick."
The only solution, he said, is for TSSD to get out of the compost business.
"If they do not stop this composting, the economic development will be stagnant for years and years to come," Robinson said.
American Fork and Pleasant Grove put up $2,500 each to retain the Salt Lake law firm Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall & McCarthy to pursue the legal claim. They say they would consider spending thousands more given the economic development dollars that could be derived. Robinson says he would go even further.
"If it cost a half-million dollars, I'm going to do it. I'm not going to go away. That's a promise," he said.
Darrington said he hopes the notice of claims leads to a serious discussion about moving the compost operation. If not, "we're heading down a road that isn't going to be pleasant for anyone."
Contributing: Joey Ferguson