NAF trial tentatively set for December, location uncertain

By Julie Fann
star staff

Carter County Clerk and Master Charlotte McKeehan on Monday said the trial date for the lawsuit the city of Elizabethton has against North American Fibers has been tentatively scheduled for Dec. 16, 17 and 18 in Washington County.
   "The schedule I have from the Chancellor's office says the trial will be heard in Johnson City on those dates, but that is subject to change until I get the full schedule from all judges sometime next week," McKeehan said.
   The trial will be a bench trial, meaning the outcome will be determined by a judge (in this case Chancellor Richard Johnson) and not a jury. A hearing regarding a request for a change of venue made by three Carter County residents on behalf of defendant Charles Green is, according to local officials, a moot point.
   "It isn't a jury trial. The Chancellor determines where the case will be heard," said Ruth Bowers, secretary for City Attorney Roger Day.
   Charlton DeVault, lead council for the city of Elizabethton, said he believed the trial will be heard in Carter County and that the Clerk and Master's office must have been mistaken. "I think she's (Charlotte McKeehan) mistaken. He (Richard Johnson) had to pick three days that were clear. As far as I know, it will be tried in Elizabethton."
   The city filed the lawsuit against NAF on August 16, 2000, complaining that an NAF landfill was sitting on top of one of the city's main sewer lines. The city asked that NAF remove material and grant access to the sewer line so that city workers could inspect and maintain it.
   The city says it paid $10,000 for a sewer easement in 1957, then built the 24-inch West End interceptor which served approximately 40 percent of the population at the time the suit was filed. City Manager Charles Stahl said the city was concerned the sewer might be deteriorating or in danger of collapsing from the weight of the landfill.
   Three Carter County residents in May filed a request that the trial be moved to Washington County, claiming they have a personal stake in the outcome of the case because taxes will rise if the costs of the new sewer line aren't turned over to NAF.
   In the motion for a change of venue, NAF said the city had been allowed to change its original complaint to include recovery of expenses from the new sewer line the city built to bypass the old one. However, the city said it spent $1,102,745 for the new bypass and that additional interest and debt from the new line is expected to cost $328,841.24 over a 20-year period at the current interest rate of 2.8 percent.
   Attorneys for the city of Elizabethton responded to the request by saying that, according to Tennessee Code, such a request applied only to cases where a jury is necessary to decide the factual issues of a Circuit or Chancery Court case.
   In the document submitted to the Clerk and Master's office in June, the city's attorneys stated that there has been no demand for a jury in the case and, therefore, the motion for a change of venue appeared to be a "mistake" because the case is to be heard by a Chancellor at a bench trial, not a jury trial.