Marana's effort to take over a county wastewater treatment plant hit a major roadblock Thursday when the Pima Association of Governments voted to deny the town a required environmental permit to operate the facility.
The town wants the northwest-side treatment plant so it can control sewer hookups and claim the water-recharge credits attached to the treated effluent it produces, both keys to future growth.
In April the Legislature voted to force the county to sell the plant to the town for the amount still owed on the bonds used to pay for it. But the town still needs to get the regulatory permits to operate it.
Despite the rejection, Marana Mayor Ed Honea said he was happy with the decision because it allows the town to take its case to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
ADEQ officials said they haven't been officially notified of the PAG vote, so ADEQ spokesman Mark Shaffer said, "We don't see a a clear course for any further ADEQ action."
Honea and Marana were left in limbo two months ago after the PAG regional council voted to delay consideration of the town's application for a permit.
Thursday's vote was 4-3, with Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup abstaining. Honea and representatives from Sahuarita and Oro Valley voted yes, while representatives of Pima County, South Tucson, the Tohono O'odham Nation and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe voted no.
"We need to take an action," Honea told the PAG regional council. "I'm happy with a no vote. I'm willing to accept a no vote," he said, because the issue can now be advanced to the ADEQ, instead of remaining stalled at the PAG.
While the final decision rests with the ADEQ, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he's never heard of the ADEQ overturning a local environmental permitting decision. He said "it's never happened" that he can remember, noting that local control of such permits is called for under federal law.
After the permit was voted down, Walkup asked for the decision to be reconsidered and for the application to be put back on hold. Walkup said the board should not consider the application until all the lawsuits surrounding the issue are settled in court, which officials said could take between three and five years. His motion failed on a 6-2 vote, with only Walkup and Pima County Supervisor Ramón Valadez voting yes.
Marana has wanted to control its own sewer system for years so it can control growth in the area. Town officials have long accused Pima County, which built and operates the plant, of holding up development projects in its area.
Before the town got the Legislature to intervene on its side it tried to take over the plant by annexing it and claiming ownership because it was within the new town limits. A Maricopa County Superior Court judge rejected that claim, saying the plant was built to serve more than just Marana residents and paid for by all county taxpayers.
Pima County has announced it intends to sue the state over the law forcing it to hand over the sewer plant to Marana.
Honea told the board before the vote that the issue was allowing Marana to "control our own destiny and control our own wastewater." Honea said the town has been working on the permit for two years, and waiting for a resolution to the lawsuits could delay the issue another three to five years.
Valadez urged regional council members to vote no because he said Marana's plan hurts regional efforts.
Walkup asked to recuse himself from the vote because he said the City Council had concerns and he did as well. "I'm reluctant to cast a vote," Walkup said.
Huckelberry said he didn't know if the ADEQ would choose to overturn the PAG's decision but said he would view that as a serious step that would likely be appealed to the Environmental Protection Agency.