The year is 1935. Dusk settles over the quiet town of Colchester, casting a shadow over a string of camps along the shoreline. Lights at Clarey’s Bayside Dine n’ Dance flicker on and the voices of Louis Armstrong and Guy Lombardo beckon folks to don roller-skates and slide onto the dance floor. The sizzle of hot dogs cooking at Sadie’s next door mixes with music from the palladium, drawing more summer folks to trickle out of nearby camps.
Today, the Pickled Perch sits in Clarey’s former location overlooking Bayside Park, at the mouth to East Lakeshore Drive. The roller palladium is also gone and many of the camps along the water have been converted into year-round residences.
Although Colchester’s summer season is still one of the most important times of the year for tourism, recreation, and economic prosperity, the gradual transition of seasonal camps to year-round also helped to introduce one of the town’s biggest conundrums: whether to build wastewater infrastructure.
In the 1990s, the town unsuccessfully attempted to pass a new sewer project despite failing systems, and history repeated itself in March, when another proposal failed at the polls. So the planning commission returned to the drawing board this summer to find a solution—reaching out to the community via public forums, leading tours of the at-risk area, organizing workshops, and conducting surveys. Options include community septic, a sewer line, land conservation, or doing nothing.
Proponents of fixing the sewer issues through infrastructure say it will improve the bay’s water quality and help residents who need new sewer systems. Residents against the move, however, fear more infrastructure will negatively impact the town’s character.
Meantime, residents living with the failing systems—many of whom inherited the problem and can’t afford to invest $40,000 to fix it—are stuck in the middle, forcing the community to ask itself in the face of another potential wastewater vote: What is the cost of preserving character?
One of the loudest voices has been the Friends of Malletts Bay, a group formed in opposition of the 1998 sewer plan that remained somewhat dormant until last year’s vote. According to Jack Scully, a former selectboard member and a current member of Friends of Malletts Bay, more wastewater infrastructure would increase development and much of the neighborhood character would be lost.
“Do you really need a sewer or is that in part to encourage more development in the area?” Scully asked. He and others in the group are frustrated with the way the town has tackled the water quality issue from the beginning and are pushing for more research, more information, and a solution that negates development from the equation.
“I don’t want to enable the disruption of the town’s character,” said Marilyn Sowles, another vocal member of Friends of Malletts Bay, in reference to the use of Local Option Tax (LOT) to fund a portion of proposed wastewater solutions. “I don’t want to look back and ask myself, ‘Did we get the balance right? Or did we unleash something worse?’”
LOT funds are reserved for voter-approved capital projects and are the main funding source for many of the proposed wastewater solutions. But according to this year’s town finance report, 87 percent of the fund comes from out-of-town visitors, meaning money for a potential wastewater system is, for the most part, not coming out of residents’ pockets.
Funding aside, is there merit to the concerns that increased infrastructure could increase overdevelopment? The answer is complicated.
Planning and Zoning Director Sarah Hadd pointed out that all development in Colchester, including the “mini mansions” along East Lakeshore Drive that Sowles disdains, has occurred without any wastewater infrastructure. Change in Colchester is slow and steady, Hadd affirmed, but installing infrastructure does not mean that more mini mansions will spring up the next day. She said those decisions happen at the zoning level.
“In zoning and land use, you set forth a vision. A piece of infrastructure accelerates that development, but you still wind up with the same vision,” Hadd said. “Planning and zoning puts the keys into the hands of the community; it is meant to put the community in the driver’s seat. This is the community’s vision, and if you have concerns about the vision the community has chosen, I think that’s sad. That’s a concern of people who don’t trust their community.”
The town plan requires the planning commission to revisit zoning and land use in the E. Lakeshore Dr. area every two years. As soon as the commission hands over its report to the selectboard in October, Hadd said she plans to tackle zoning in that area. She also argues that much of Colchester has changed due to outside factors.
“We’re so fearful of changes brought on by one piece of infrastructure that we’re not observant and attuned to many different factors that are silently changing our community,” she said, pointing to how the housing boom of the 60s and 70s has altered the town’s demographics, and how the advent of the internet has changed which businesses succeed.
Indeed, Colchester looks different than it did when most residents left at the end of the summer. Long-time resident Mo Germain remembers being 20-years-old, clipping skates to his shoes, and walking back home from Clarey’s come midnight. “Clarey’s was a destination. This is where you went in the summertime. On weekends those camps would be humming,” he recalled.
Germain moved to Colchester in the 1980s and owned Saba Marina, formerly Malletts Bay Marina, for decades. When asked if he misses any of the character from the old days, or if he would bring anything back, Germain chuckled and said, “We don’t want to go back there, nobody lived there!”
David Coates of Coates Island has lived in Colchester since 1937. “I’m such a native Vermonter, I was born at home,” he said, in the little house his family used to own near Rozzi’s Lakeshore Tavern. He remembers Clarey’s Bayside and the roller rink, but with the added memories of a childhood spent along the Bay. Coates recalled catching frogs, trapping, hunting, fishing, and sharing resources with the few neighboring families.
“That’s what it was about—sharing and community,” he recalled. “I learned three things from my grandfather. One, work hard. Two, always keep your word. And three, take damn good care of this island. In his day, that meant the family and the community. And Colchester is a family. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.”
For both Coates and Germain, cleaning up the lake is a number one priority despite how it might impact the town’s character. “Things have changed but we have to live with change,” Coates said. “That’s what the world is about right? Those people that can’t live with it are going to be left behind. You can’t close the door and just say, ‘no more people.’ There’s no drawbridge here.”