WAITSBURG — City leaders on Wednesday rejected the advances of Nestlé Waters North America.
The decision was contentious and divided, but the City Council ultimately voted to make its position clear to the Swiss-based multinational conglomerate seeking access to the city’s spring water to open a bottling plant.
The Council will write a letter expressing “no interest” in Nestlé’s proposal to investigate developing the $50 million plant in city limits.
“I have not heard anybody say they are ‘ga-ga’ about this idea, that they love this idea and let’s get Nestlé in here,” said Council member Kate Hockersmith. “I think it’s a very bad idea for our town.”
With no proposal, permit application or other formal request by Nestlé on the table to deny, City Attorney Jared Hawkins suggested that a letter was one option available to city officials.
But before the Council could take a vote on whether to send such a letter, or whether such a letter targeting one company’s interest would invite a lawsuit, Nestlé representative Bruce Lauerman stood and addressed the room.
“I hear what you’re saying,” he said. “You don’t need to send a letter. We’re gone. I’m disappointed, but we’re not going to litigate, we’re just going to leave.”
A majority of residents who spoke at several public meetings since July regarding NestlC have not been in support of allowing the company access to Waitsburg’s springs to determine the feasibility of a bottling plant — despite the promise of 50 full-time jobs if the plant were built.
And while Mayor Pro Tem Marty Dunn made it clear that absolutely no citizen input would be taken at Wednesday night’s meeting, about half of the 50 residents present wore anti-Nestlé stickers.
Despite Lauerman’s assurances a letter to his company was unnecessary, Dunn cast a tiebreaking vote to send one. Council members KC Kuykendall and Kevin House were against the idea; Hockersmith and Karl Newell supported it.
Lauerman, in a prepared statement, told the Union-Bulletin this morning that company officials “are disappointed that the Waitsburg City Council has decided not to move forward with the due diligence process related to our proposed siting of a water bottling facility.
“We are committed to transparent, public dialogue, including publicly communicating our plans and activities as soon as possible wherever we operate,” he wrote. “We regret any impression that this was not the case during our initial discussions with Waitsburg officials.”
Controversy has been high in Waitsburg since July, when members of City Council and the town’s residents learned that former Mayor Walt Gobel, who resigned two weeks ago, and City Administrator Randy Hinchliffe had quietly been in talks with Nestlé for months without their knowledge.
“I’m wondering how this would have gone down if it was anything besides Nestlé,” House said.
Kuykendall had the same question, particularly after Waitsburg resident Deborah Foreman, without mentioning Nestlé, spent an allotted three minutes reading from the city’s development code.
“Thank you for your comment tonight reminding us that our laws on the books do say how we should handle this kind of a situation,” Kuykendall said. “And it does include a process that would normally require an applicant to go before the planning commission or ... city staff and ask for a business license.”
But, Kuykendall said, this situation was unusual.
“In this case, because the potential project involves consuming essentially 100 percent of our current water demand — in other words doubling our current load — that’s not something that the city clerk could or should make a determination on and frankly neither should the planning commission independent of the Council,” he said. “I think it is appropriate it come before Council given the type of development.”
“I think that if it was other than Nestle, I think that this conversation would be different, and I am not sure that that is ethical, honest or even legal,” Kuykendall said. “In fact, I’m quite sure it’s not.”
With the issue polarizing the community, however, he said he believed the best answer was to follow the majority’s lead.
“It makes my job as an elected official easier because we work for the people that vote us in here and the majority is against this,” he said.