Jury’s call in MWRA case may affect your bill

Julie Jette

A Norfolk County Superior Court jury is mulling a $20 million question that could have reverberations for MWRA customers.

Jurors are being asked to decide how much the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority should have to pay the owners of the Fore River Station, a power plant in North Weymouth, for taking by eminent domain about 15 acres of land the authority needed for a $221 million sewer project.

The MWRA says it should have to pay a maximum of about $3.2 million; the owners of the plant say the agency owes it as much as $23.2 million.

Were jurors to accept the $23.2 million figure, the overall cost of the sewer project would rise by 8 percent.

Looking at the $23.2 million figure a different way, that is about how much 23,000 sewer and water customers pay the MWRA annually.

The $23.2 million would be borrowed and paid back over time, however.

In a trial that has now entered its sixth week, attorneys brought many experts to testify about appraisals, development and the law of eminent domain, which allows the government to take land for public works projects, provided that the owners are compensated.

Lawyers for both sides delivered their closing arguments Wednesday, and jurors began deliberating that afternoon.

Much of the acreage in question is underwater, used as part of a project that substantially expanded the region’s sewer capacity and helped reduce backups into local cellars during intense rainstorms.

The big money comes in for about an acre and a half of land taken by the MWRA for a pumping station. That land, according to experts who testified for the plant, is worth $11.4 million.

Lawyers for the plant said the MWRA should have valued the land for the pumping station far higher, because it could have been used as a site for housing. The MWRA appraisal of the land’s value did not consider housing a viable use.

Mark Bourbeau, a lawyer for the plant, said that despite zoning challenges, a housing development on the land would have been highly desirable for Weymouth.

‘‘That site is one of the last undeveloped sites available on the water in the area,’’ Bourbeau said.

In her closing arguments, MWRA attorney Diane Tillotson called assertions that homes could be built on the land - next to the power plant - ‘‘preposterous.’’

Lawyers for the plant said its owners are also due $11.82 million in costs for constructing new electrical switching facilities. They said the plant’s owners took down a switch house used for the old Boston Edison Edgar station because the MWRA had planned to take land too close to it. As a result, builders of the Fore River Station believed they needed a larger buffer.

In the end, the agency did not need to take that land, but lawyers for the plant said plans had been in place to take it for some time.

The plant has had multiple owners since it was sold by Boston Edison, now part of NStar. It is now owned by New York-based U.S. Power Generating. When the eminent-domain taking occurred in 2002, a company called Sithe Energies was building the plant.

Julie Jette may be reached at jjette@ledger.com.