Fire district bows out of sewer project

By

The future of the long-discussed Malletts Bay sewer project is now uncertain after leaders from Colchester Fire District No. 2 announced last month they were abandoning the endeavor.

At the Sept. 12 selectboard meeting, CFD No. 2 Prudential Committee president Mike Whalen told town officials that climbing costs, uncertainty from other towns and complicated legal matters, among other factors, played into their decision.

“The concern that the committee had is that an awful lot of things would have to fall into place for it to work,” Whalen said. “We’ve been fighting some of these dominos for a long time.”

The project, which began more than six years ago according to meeting minutes, would have brought sewers from a municipal treatment plant in Burlington’s North End to Colchester’s Heineberg Drive, Prim Road, Lakeshore Drive and Goodsell Point as part of a larger effort to improve water quality in the bay.

But Whalen said Burlington has yet to provide a commitment on treatment plant capacity and may not have an answer for years to come. Plus, part of Goodsell Point technically falls within Colchester Fire District No. 3, a hurdle that would require complicated ordinances, enforcement, voting and billing to work.

The original $13 million project cost soon ballooned, too. The last best guess, Whalen said, was $20 to $25 million.

Public works director Bryan Osborne said homeowners would likely have faced a $10,000-plus charge to connect to the new sewer line, comparable to installing an onsite system after building a new home.

After applying the $6.5 million pollution abatement grant and $500,000 of loan forgiveness the fire district secured, annual costs for a single-family home hovered around $2,200. The statewide average is between $500 and $900, Osborne said.

To bring the figure down to the still-lofty $1,200 annually, Osborne said the fire district would have to apply close to $600,000 of voter-approved local option tax funding every year — a little less than half of all available LOT funds.

“It just gets real complicated,” Osborne said. “I’m not saying there isn’t a solution for it, but I would agree it’s very complicated.”

Still, Whalen said the committee was disappointed with the outcome. Gesturing to a binder packed full, he said he’d made many “happy jaunts” with Osborne to Burlington and Montpelier to discuss the project with state officials. The district, he confirmed, would support the town if it chose to continue the effort alone.

Osborne then described to the board a scaled back version of the project he’d proposed to CFD No. 2 earlier.

Bringing sewers to just inner Malletts Bay, including East and West Lakeshore drives and Goodsell Point, while eliminating Heineberg Drive and Prim Road would “more strategically” target the areas of pollution, Osborne said, and bring a more manageable price tag.

If the town pumped that system to its existing setup on Route 7, Colchester also wouldn’t have to wait for or rely on another municipality before moving forward, Osborne said, lowering the high inflationary costs currently tied to the broader scale project.

There would still be some challenges, however. Osborne said the town would need to confirm the loan subsidy and grant would remain available from the state and reexamine the local capacity to add more flows.

Selectman Tom Mulcahy said he would still expect pushback from homeowners because of a likely needed mandatory connection clause. Osborne agreed, but noted it would be near impossible to execute the project without the forced buy-in.

“Do you anticipate the same numbers that foiled the Fire [District No.] 2 project?” selectman Herb Downing probed, pointing to the high hook-up and user fees associated with the original model. “If that’s where we’re going to end up, that’s not going to happen.”

“It’s a fundamentally different project,” Osborne answered. “It’s much smaller and may have multiple advantages that might produce a user fee that is more palatable.”

The board unanimously voted to move forward with a viability study, funded through the DPW’s existing budget. Osborne said he hoped to have an update for the board before the end of the year.