Sewer has bubbled to the surface yet again. After nearly six months of researching solutions to wastewater pollution in Malletts Bay, and an extensive public outreach campaign, the Colchester Planning Commission concluded that extending sewer service through the Inner Bay neighborhood is still the town’s best option.
The Planning Commission presented their findings and a draft of their report at a meeting on Nov. 19. The 13-page report gives context for the Planning Commission’s charge, an outline of their process, a review of each of the four identified options, and the Commission’s conclusion.
The three other options nixed include land conservation, community septic, and “do nothing.”
The town has proposed a sewer line to the public twice before—in March 2019, and in the late ‘90s. Both were voted down. One resident addressed this at the presentation, asking, “What is the plan for preventing [the sewer] from being voted down again?”
This question, of whether the town is doomed to run in a circle around sewer, loomed over this summer’s outreach campaign and may continue to haunt the wastewater proposal into a potential vote next year.
Chair of the Planning Commission Richard Paquette addressed the question by noting that the purpose of this summer’s campaign was to give those who voted down the sewer in March an opportunity to provide a better option.
“That’s really what we were looking for, something besides the sewer; could we bring something to you that was better than the sewer,” he said. “But after all of this, we decided that sewer still came to the top. It’s our best bet.”
Director of Planning and Zoning Sarah Hadd also mentioned in the report “many misperceptions [sic] held about septic systems, enforcement abilities of the Town, and wastewater permitting rules.”
The report further states that “while the town has undertaken considerable and comprehensive water quality initiatives, not all community members are aware of these efforts.”
Following the failed vote in March, the selectboard charged the planning commission with reviewing options to address the “lack of wastewater disposal capacity for property on inner Malletts Bay,” and to report their findings to the board this fall.
Starting in May of 2019, the planning commission conducted extensive public outreach, including public forums, surveys, online polls, and workshops.
According to the report, the commission understood the selectboard’s charge to include the same problem area as identified in the previous sewer proposal (289 properties on East and West Lakeshore Drives, and Goodsell Point), and to “solicit as much community involvement as possible.”
The planning commission used a matrix to evaluate all of the options against: 1) Does the solution maintain and/or improve water quality for both current and future land use and site conditions? 2) Is the solution efficient, cost effective, and reliable? 3) What is the impact to the character of the neighborhood? 4) What is the impact to property values and taxes?
The land conservation option proposed that the town buy up and conserve properties along the Inner Bay. According to the commission’s findings, this option proved the most expensive however, adding up to over $72 million if the town was to buy all 289 identified properties. While the option provided potential improvements to the character of the neighborhood, it also had the potential to negatively impact businesses and residents who have to be relocated. In addition, no local conservation fund currently exists in Colchester.
The community septic option seemed to be the closest rival to the sewer option. However, this option would have required land space to support a community septic. Due to the close proximity of houses in the Inner Bay and tight space restrictions, the Planning Commission turned to town-owned Bayside Hazelett property as a possible site option. According to the report, members of the Commission raised concerns about the “chance of malfunction and smells associated with the operation of the system, specifically sludge removal.”
This option also turned out to be more expensive than the proposed sewer, clocking in at $17,550,000 for the total estimated construction cost. The report concludes that “the solution is efficient in that it treats wastewater close to where it originates however the solution is also expensive and requires considerable oversight to operate reliably.”
The “do nothing,” or “no action,” solution was evaluated as a comparison for the other options. The option was proposed by residents during public outreach this summer as a call for more research into the issue. As the report states, despite “the four years and $2 million IWRMP [Integrated Water Resources Management Plan], there were calls to conduct additional study on the scope of the problem and delay action.”
The report also noted that Colchester has the highest level of wastewater enforcement of any onsite municipality in Vermont.
The problem statement included in the report goes into detail about the history of wastewater in the inner bay, as well as the extensive research the town of Colchester has conducted in light of the pollution.
According to the report, the town has considered wastewater pollution within the inner bay as far back as in the original 1967 town plan.
Two studies in the last ten years have further confirmed the presence of human wastewater pollution in the Bay.
The report states that in 2015, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Watershed Management Division determined that the presence of E.coli, while relatively common in streams and rivers, is much more rare in lakes — and that “the record of repeating and regular E.coli bacteria exceedances during dry weather is uncommon in Vermont lake waters and suggests a higher than expected source signal in Malletts Bay.”
In 2013, the planning commission conducted the IWRMP, which “constituted the highest level of wastewater investigation physically and legally possible and concluded that the best solution for the high risk area of the Inner Bay was sewer.”
“We don’t have time to choose the no action option, even if you’d like more data,” said Hadd. “Conducting more studies now is a waste of public funds.” Waiting, she said, would make cleaning up much more expensive in the future.
The planning commission plans to present the final draft of its findings to the selectboard in January of 2020. Public comment on the draft is welcomed until Dec. 13. The Commission also plans to evaluate public comments on their findings at their Dec. 17 meeting.