Colchester’s Planning Commission has been charged with finding a way to address the issue of wastewater management at Mallets Bay. As part of that work, the commission discussed a proposal to conserve land by having the town take ownership of properties along the bay at its most recent meeting.
The meeting quickly soured, however, when the idea received harsh backlash from a few residents.
“There’s lots of layers to this onion,” said chairwoman Pam Loranger. “We’re trying to put our arms around it. It’s an option we said we would consider, so we’re starting at the gross level of trying to understand it.”
The Planning Commission is gathering options for the Selectboard to consider. At this time in the process, the focus is on brainstorming and exploring all options with an open mind.
Multiple people have proposed that the town acquire camps directly on the lake and remove them, thus ending a cycle of failing home septic systems contaminating the bay.
Sarah Hadd, Director of Planning and Zoning, laid out a few ways in which the town could acquire property to alleviate wastewater issues.
Land donation, consensual purchase, and eminent domain were the three routes.
Donation remains unlikely, said Hadd, though if property owners donated land to the town, there would be additional costs around taking care of the land and sea wall, as well as repairing existing septic systems. “Using recent demolition permit and seawall permit data, costs to demolish a building would be expected to average $25,000 a piece depending on the size of the structure,” said Hadd.
Consensual purchase is pretty straightforward—the town could buy properties from willing homeowners. However, this would mean the same maintenance costs as the donation option, with the added cost of buying land.
Lastly, Hadd talked about the use of eminent domain to take back properties involuntarily through courts. She cautioned against this though, saying that eminent domain should not be used lightly and that the time and money put in may not be worth the end result.
An issue with all of these options is that if properties were to be conserved by the town, they would be removed from the Grant List, resulting in less tax money collected. According to Hadd, $207,489 in annual tax revenue would be lost if the lakefront properties were conserved by the town.
Many residents expressed their concerns about a hypothetical situation that could see a land conservation option buying 126 lakeside properties over 50 years. In this scenario, $909,146 would be needed in total funds for an annual purchase, using an average property value of about $300,000 per property.
“I don’t know anyone who thinks this is a good idea,” said one resident. “It’s like you’re selling fear. Like, if we don’t do this or come up with another solution, we have to condemn those properties.”
Hadd expressed her desire to provide more information, rather than less, but apologized if hypothetical numbers concerned some residents. “I didn’t mean to turn anybody off to it,” she said. “Early efforts in the 80s and 90s validates these efforts, but using today’s numbers, it is difficult.”
Some of the positive impacts Hadd discussed involved a restoration of character to the neighborhood. If lakeside properties are acquired, the town could open up lake views and plant more greenery, improving aesthetics and restoring the natural environment. Impervious surfaces like parking lots could be removed, also resulting in decreased stormwater runoff.
While the pros and cons of this option seem neck and neck, it is only one option being explored among many. In their journey towards finding a solution to the town’s wastewater problem, the Planning Commission will continue discussion and public involvement in a Septic Solutions Workshop on July 2 at 7 p.m. at the Colchester High School Cafeteria.