Neighbors along the Western Canal path between Gilbert and Lindsey roads are hoping a meeting with Gilbert Town Council members can save them from losing their backyards to the town.

Those residents, coming from 24 homes, have made enough noise at the previous three council meetings to earn the special meeting with the full council Feb. 25 at which their concerns will be discussed. But some residents said they believe the town is only looking to placate the owners and claim they have been transparent.

“I don’t need that kind of transparency,” said homeowner Nolan Baldwin, who lives on East Commerce Avenue in Gilbert, one of three streets affected by the “concrete pipe gravity sewer rehab” project the town is undertaking. “We need to have a discussion.”

The project is to fix a deteriorating section of 36-inch sewer pipe that runs along the Western Canal, about 20 feet below ground, on land that is owned by the residents but for which the town and electric utility Salt River Project have easements—a legal right to cross or otherwise access someone’s land for a specified purpose.

SRP’s easement is to maintain overhead electrical utility lines that run along the canal. For the town, it is to maintain the sewer, a 24-inch potable water pipeline and an 18-inch reclaimed water line, all located under ground. Those lines serve about 25,000 households in Gilbert, town spokesperson Jennifer Harrison said.

The town has told homeowners that to complete the project, it must exercise its eminent domain rights to purchase a portion of their yards so it has the access it needs to refurbish the sewer and other lines.

The town believes all three lines will need work in the next three to five years, Harrison said. It also will refurbish manholes, some of which are in homeowners’ enclosed yards.

Residents said they have no problem with the idea that those lines, now or in the future, will need refurbishment or repair.

Furthermore, they said all 24 homeowners are willing to grant town workers unfettered access 24 hours a day, seven days a week with just a little notice in non-emergency situations.

However, the town maintains it needs unrestricted visibility and access to ensure the reliability of the infrastructure for the community and safety of the adjacent properties if a failure occurs, Harrison said.

The residents, however, question that, as most of the manholes, through which the town plans to refurbish the sewer line, are outside yards and accessible now.

Established neighborhood

The three residential streets affected are Hemlock Avenue, Commerce Avenue and Honeysuckle Lane. They run between the Village II Park on the west and Lindsay Road on the east. The town’s Freestone Regional Park is on the other side of Lindsay Road from the homes.

The homes on Hemlock, like that of Kirk and Devon Nelson, have been in place longer than the sewer. The Nelsons said they are original owners of their home, built in 1979, and the sewer came in during the 1980s.

The Nelsons said they have loved living in Gilbert and been involved in civic events such as the Gilbert Days Parade. But now they said they are feeling stabbed in the back.

When the Nelsons originally bought their home, they said the back fence went to the easement. But the easement land involved was considered to be owned by them, and they paid property tax on it. In the early 1990s, they decided to make use of that land and extend their yard to include the easement area and make a garden area.

Before doing that, however, they sought permission and direction from first SRP and then the town.

SRP, they said, was “wonderful” about it, telling the family what it would need to do and to build gates on either side of their yard wide enough for SRP trucks to go through if they ever needed access.

The town, however, told them just to follow whatever SRP told them to do, but if the town ever needed to go through, they just would just do it, Devon Nelson said.

For nearly 28 years since then, they never heard from or saw the town, and the town never did any maintenance on the land, she said.

All but two of the other homeowners on Hemlock also extended their yards at some point. Homes on Commerce, however, were built with the easement enclosed in the yards. Some, like that of Stacy Adams, have maintenance holes in their yards.

Project scope

The project proposes to rehabilitate approximately 10,000 feet of sewer pipeline and 22 maintenance holes.

The design engineer is proposing to utilize a “cured-in-place” pipe technology for the pipeline rehabilitation. Harrison said the technology uses existing maintenance holes for access to install a liner within the pipeline.

The primary benefit of this approach is that it minimizes the extent of excavation to rehabilitate the existing sewer, she said.

However, Harrison said that even with cured-in-place pipe method, excavation will be required, including around the six maintenance holes within residential parcels. That will require removal of existing masonry walls and “obstructions that were built within the easement area” to provide adequate space for construction at maintenance holes.

Furthermore, she said the town anticipates that excavation to the existing pipeline may be necessary to complete repairs in areas where the existing condition of the pipe will not allow for lining as the sole repair method. The contractor will assess the pipeline’s condition before construction to determine where those spot repairs will be needed.

The refurbishment of this section of sewer is Phase 2 of a project coded WW1060 in the town’s capital improvement plan. Harrison said about $10 million remains in the budget for the project, and the preliminary “engineer’s opinion of probable cost” for the part is $4.2 million for construction costs alone, Harrison said.

The town is conducting appraisals to determine to cost of the land acquisition. Council approved on its consent agenda Nov. 10 a contract of $224,873 with Jacobs Engineering for completing real property acquisition services related to the project.

Council unanimously approved the acquisitions in a public hearing that covered several items at once and was opened and closed simultaneously without discussion.

Residents see ‘land grab’

The first residents said they first heard of this was when they received a letter from Jacobs Engineering just before Christmas, inviting residents to meet with them about the project. The letter’s only reference to the plan to purchase residents’ land is a line that says the firm “will be assisting the Town in securing the private property rights needed for the project.”

Commerce Avenue resident Stacy Adams said homeowners on Commerce have been told the town will purchase from 7 feet to 26 feet into residents’ yards, depending on each yard’s easement. On one property on Honeysuckle, the total amount of land amounts to nearly an acre, which has three maintenance holes on it—all accessible to vehicle traffic through a gate.

The town did conduct a homeowners meeting where it showed a presentation explaining the project and the options for repairing the sewer: relocating the sewer, acquiring just the land around the maintenance holes or the chosen option of “in-place solution” in which the town acquires the existing easements.

The three options are then evaluated on a checkmark system on criteria ranging from best value to impact on landowners. The in-place solution has the most checkmarks and only receives a red “x” for reducing present impact to landowners. However, it received a green checkmark for reducing future impact to landowners, which does not make sense to the residents, they said.

“The presentation definitely was skewed toward the solution the town wanted,” Adams said.

The residents’ preferred solution of granting access whenever needed was not evaluated in the presentation. That makes them wonder if this is not a “land grab,” Devon Nelson said.

Adams noted the town has a future $3.69 million “trail beautification” capital improvement project for the land that is scheduled for fiscal year 2023-24. The land behind residents’ yards along the canal is considered the Western Powerline Trail, frequently used by walkers and bikers.

Harrison said gates do not give proper access to ensure the sewer’s integrity and proper maintenance. As it is, the town’s maintenance procedures have been modified and intervals between maintenance increased because of a lack of access.

“Although installation of gates in the block walls may partially increase access, that approach is not a solution,” Harrison wrote in an email. “Gate access will not create the needed visibility or eliminate obstructions for appropriate maintenance procedures on the sewer pipeline or future rehabilitation/replacement of the reclaimed water pipeline. In order to guarantee unrestricted visibility and access, land acquisition is necessary.”

The homeowners said they are willing to work with the town but need an open discussion that looks for a solution that works for homeowners and the town.

Mayor Brigette Peterson told the homeowners after they spoke at the previous two council meetings they had been heard and would schedule a meeting with council, the one now set for Feb. 25.

Peterson took office in January and said she is “walking into this one,” trying to catch up on discussions that have happened and what the options might be.

“I want to get this taken care of for us and for the residents,” she said. “I want them to be at ease.”