By DOTTY NIST
Both the owners of the former Lucky 13 Truck Stop and Walton County commissioners are in favor of the business reopening, but on Sept. 23 commissioners could not see their way clear to support a grant application to make that happen.
The business, now known as the Great American Travel Center, is in the Mossy Head area. It is not currently in operation.
The sticking point is the Green Acres Road Wastewater Treatment Plant, which serves the truck stop property. The commissioners say it has not been operated properly by the business owners.
At the Sept. 23 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting, John S. Platt appeared before the commissioners on behalf of Great American Travel Center owner Roger McCombs with the request that they support a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) submission for revitalization of the center.
Platt noted that no matching funds from the county would be required in connection with the grant. The grant funds would allow business owners to make improvements required to reopen the center, he told the commissioners. He added that the center had realized $730,000 in the year prior to its closing and would provide about 100 low-to-medium-income jobs for operation of the gas station, motel, and hopefully a restaurant as well.
County Administrator Ronnie Bell commented that his recommendation would be that the county assist with the grant submission only on the condition that the business owners resolve issues related to the wastewater treatment plant.
Bell explained that Walton County had acquired a previous grant to fund construction of the wastewater plant. He added that a condition of that grant application was that the county be the permit-holder for the plant, even though the business owners were to own and operate the plant.
In summer 2007, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) imposed a $41,000 fine on the county, as permit-holder, due to alleged violations with the wastewater treatment plant.
DEP allowed the county to resolve the charges with an in-kind project to improve the environment, but the commissioners voted at that time to seek transfer of the plant permit to the business owners and to seek reimbursement for expenses involved with the alleged violations. A year later, neither of those things has come to pass.
County Commission Chairman Larry Jones recalled that, after being contacted by DEP last year, the county had brought the wastewater treatment plant back into compliance.
Bell reported that DEP had again raised compliance issues with the wastewater plant and was requiring a response by Sept. 27. He said that there had been no fines as yet with the recent violation charges.
W.C. Henry, county legal counsel, said the receivership that owned the business at the time the previous issues were being resolved did not want to take over the permit from the county. Platt indicated that McCombs had been one of the members of the receivership.
Attorney Henry continued that now “the holding basins are full of wastewater” that needs pumping out, and that DEP will not allow the permit to be transferred while there are compliance issues.
“We can abandon the permit,” Bell told the commissioners. However, he explained, the county would still be required to pay any outstanding fines, and it would take eight to nine months for a new applicant to get the permit reinstated.
“Mr. McCombs gave us his word he would take care of this,” Bell said of the wastewater treatment plant situation.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows moved to deny the request for support of the grant application, based on nonperformance of what had been agreed to by the business ownership.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander said she was torn in her sentiments on the matter. She made mention of the jobs, sales revenue and tax revenue that the county is losing while the business remains closed.
“Do we punish, in essence, ourselves and our citizens?” she asked.
Mike Burke, county attorney, commented that the county needs the business owners to accept the permit and to “see that we’re made whole,” from a financial standpoint.
Meadows’ motion to deny the request was approved unanimously, as was a motion by District 1 Commissioner Scott Brannon to seek reimbursement from the business owners of the county’s costs for alleged violations in connection with the wastewater treatment plant.