Five years after it picked a site in Lancaster Township near Buchanan Elementary School for a controversial water tower, the city of Lancaster has for the first time publicly released a full, detailed cost comparison between that site and three alternative possibilities.
The report indicates the city’s preferred site is the least costly and says it’s the “most suited” to the tower.
Township officials have been pushing all along for the data behind the city’s decision. They say they’re grateful for the city’s move toward transparency.
But it hasn’t convinced them. They and a local citizens’ group continue to prefer an alternative site, 196 Charles Road, and contend the report supports their view.
“For all sites there is little difference between for water pressure, tank height, or water quality,” township Manager Bill Laudien said in a statement. ”In particular, the Charles Road site, at 5 acres, seemingly provides a better opportunity for the city, at effectively the same cost.”
The city respectfully disagrees, Chief of Staff Jess King said.
“We’re not rethinking our decision,” she said.
Due diligence doubted, defended
The city paid about $10,000 for local engineering consulting firm ARRO to compile the report, in hopes it would finally quell doubts about the choice of the school district site.
The township and others have persistently questioned whether the city fully considered its alternatives.
“It doesn’t seem the study was ever done prior to the decision,” township Supervisor Steve Elliott said.
That’s emphatically not the case, King said. ARRO’s report recaps analysis the city had done “internally in different ways.”
Previously, the city released comparisons of “additional costs” at the other locations it had considered. But they weren't comprehensive and didn't provide a basis for confidence, township officials said.
Their concerns were heightened last summer when a $480,000 error in the city’s estimates was discovered during a city-township meeting.
Before the new report, township officials said they would accept the school district site if the city showed it was best.
What the numbers say
ARRO’s report compares the school district property; 196 Charles Road; 1330 Wabank Road; and a property owned by Armstrong World Industries near the intersection of Millersville and Stone Mill roads.
It estimates the construction cost for the school district site at $14.08 million. A related supply main — needed at all but the Armstrong site — adds another $1.5 million.
Earlier this year, the school district approved a lease agreement in which the city will pay $2 million over 20 years for an easement for the tower site.
The “net present value” of that amount, $1.49 million, is included.
The other three estimates don’t include a land cost. Rather than make conjectures, ARRO categorizes the line items as “unknown” and puts in $0.
Laudien said 196 Charles Road could probably be acquired for roughly its assessed value. The other two sites, too, could likely be obtained at minimal cost, he said.
The Charles Road site is assessed at $301,200. Adding that puts the estimated construction cost there at $14.56 million, or $15.76 million with the supply main. That’s $480,000 more than the school district site.
Considered against the total project cost, that’s not a big difference, Laudien said.
“The report confirms what the Township has claimed all along,” he said. “The numbers being used to force the School District site were inaccurate.”
The city had maintained the school district site was more than $1 million cheaper than the next best choice. Correcting the $480,000 error didn’t change that, Charlotte Katzenmoyer, director of public works until October 2018, told LNP at the time.
But Art Morris, who was Lancaster’s public works director in the 1970s and its mayor in the 1980s, said there’s a reason the cost difference has become much smaller: The city is overpaying for the lease.
“Had they not overpaid ... it wouldn’t even be close,” he said.
Elliott said the cost comparisons might have worked out differently had the city collaborated on site selection with the township, but “it was never brought to us.”
King said there are other reasons the city likes the school district site besides price.
It impacts the fewest private households. It’s already tax-exempt, whereas putting the tower elsewhere would take a private property off the tax rolls. The lease payments will go to the school district, rather than a private landowner.
School board president Edith Gallagher, who voted for the easement agreement, said for her, the minimal impact of the chosen site on private homes is important.
“Putting the tower in the park is not ideal, but putting it closer to other people’s homes is not the solution,” she said.
It’s common to put water towers on school campuses, King said. The Charles Road site has the most nearby households, according to ARRO; if the city turned its attention to the Charles Road site, there would probably be “a lot of pushback,” she said.
Those opposed to using the school district site, however, say its value isn’t being properly taken into account.
“Between the schools, playgrounds, ball fields, and a park — this land in question primarily serves our children,” said Kate Lutz, co-founder of community group Friends of Lancaster Township Park.
“It needs to be preserved for this intended use. A 3 million gallon industrial water tower has no place in the mix.”
The tower will be built on the township’s “last remaining open space,” said Cheryl Desmond, one of three school board members who voted against the easement agreement.
Not changing course
Were the city to shift to Charles Road, Laudien said, the township would do everything it could to help. It would consider providing relief on land development planning, taking the lead on an eminent domain proceeding and so on.
“We’d be open to any and all discussions,” he said.
If the city stays with the school district site, on the other hand, the township won’t go the extra mile, though it “will respectfully process their application ... in accordance with regulations,” Laudien said.
Even if the city were interested in changing course, design for the school district site is nearly complete, so doing so would cost time and money, ARRO’s report says. For Charles Road, it would take an additional $114,000 and 10.5 months, it estimates.
Both municipalities said they want to maintain a positive, productive relationship.
King said the city is already working to answer fresh questions from Laudien regarding the city’s next steps at the school district site and its intentions regarding land development.
“I get that they wish it were a different decision,” she said.
Laudien and Elliott said the information in the report should have come out two years ago.
“I wish that, too,” King said.