Frustration brews at wastewater forum

During the Walk-and-Talk tour, residents examine one of the failing wastewater systems along East Lakeshore Drive.

Townsfolk’s frustration with contradictory state regulations overshadowed possible solutions during a pair of wastewater public forums on May 20.

In an effort to brainstorm fixes for the town’s dilapidated wastewater systems, the Colchester Planning Commission organized a Walk-and-Talk and a Wastewater Solutions Forum.

In March, town voters rejected a proposed $15 million wastewater project for Malletts Bay.

Sarah Hadd, director of the planning and zoning department, headed the meeting with contributions from Amy Macrellis, a senior water quality specialist with Stone Environmental, and Cindy Cook, a principal with Adamant Accord—both hired by the commission to assist in the process.

Including the town’s original propositions of a sewer line or community septic tanks, suggestions at the forum included composting toilets, holding tanks, low-interest loans, low-water systems, or a town buy-out option for properties along Malletts Bay.

But while the forum aimed to conjure up possible solutions for wastewater issues, feedback from townsfolk called attention to a collective annoyance with state regulations that hinder the town’s ability to implement stricter rules.

“Do nothing!” suggested one resident. “Tell the state to take a hike; it’s their problem, not ours.”

Another resident suggested increasing town regulations, noting her concern about the disparity between state and town regulations: “It seems like there is a huge gap between what the town can legally do and what the town needs,” she said.

According to Hadd, state law allows current residential wastewater systems to operate until they fail, with only minor or temporary repairs required if failing, and without the necessity of a permit. The state also defines a failing system as wastewater surfacing or pumping back into a place of residence.

For Colchester, this means that while many residents’ systems may be broken, they’re not broken in the right way.

As frustration boiled, Vermont House Representative Curt Taylor revealed his presence at the forum, offering that he has been in talks with the planning commission in an effort to negotiate possible solutions. “We’re trying to work on it, we’re aware,” he said. “I just wanted you to know that we’re listening and aware.”

Residents also inquired about conducting more studies in Malletts Creek, seasonal mapping of the bay, the possibility of grant availability, as well as how any proposed solutions might affect existing systems and the character of the neighborhood.

During the Walk-and-Talk tour, Hadd led a group of around 40 people along East Lakeshore Drive up to Goodsell Point, to give folks a better idea of what one of the most critical areas for wastewater repairs looks like. Joining residents on the walk were Town Manager Aaron Frank, town Selectboard members, and Representative Taylor.

According to Hadd, 75 percent of wastewater on-site systems do not meet current standards. Across the town, she noted, seven areas have the biggest need for improvements—East Lakeshore Drive, with its depressed camps and minimal space for on-site management, being the most challenging area.

While walking along East Lakeshore, Hadd stopped in front of a green house, where a couple joined the group. She explained that the couple had bought the home in winter of last year, unaware of its failing septic tank. But after noting soapy discharge and effluent surfacing, they realized their system was broken. Hadd explained that, in an effort to fix the couple’s wastewater issues, the town was working with them to install a bottomless sand filter at the back of the house.

Some reasons a system may fail include high groundwater, shallow bedrock, old leachfields, or simply aging out. “Most systems hit one or more infrastructure buckets,” said Amy Macrellis at the forum.

“We moved here for our retirement,” said the woman to the group, “to be closer to our sons.”

The little green house would have been one saved by the proposed sewer project. Instead, it’s just another piece of collateral damage in the wastewater war.

Both forums come on the tail of the rejected Malletts Bay sewer project, which saw a tight vote in March, earlier this year.

According to previous reporting from the Sun, residents voted 1,396 to 1,203—a margin of only 193 votes—against the building of a sewer line that would have connected residents on East Lakeshore Drive, West Lakeshore Drive, and Goodsell Point to the municipal sewer system.

After the March vote, the planning commission is back to square one in terms of wastewater solutions. Focus has remained on getting public feedback in the form of surveys, online discussion forums such as Place Speak, and public forums like this one. “We want to hear from everybody,” said Hadd, who wrote down every suggestion offered up on large posters throughout the meeting.

But while townsfolk are united on the need for a solution, they remain uncertain of which direction to move in.

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