Colchester voters rejected the Malletts Bay sewer project on Town Meeting Day by a margin of just 193 votes.
Residents voted 1396 to 1203 to deny the use of millions of dollars in local option taxes to help fund the sewer project, which would have connected Malletts Bay residents on East Lakeshore Dr., West Lakeshore Dr. and Goodsell Point to the municipal sewer system.
“After the people of Colchester, I think Malletts Bay is our most important asset and I think the board’s not going to give up on maintaining and looking after the cleanliness and health of the bay,” town manager Aaron Frank said Tuesday night. “I suspect they’ll have some discussions about where to go next.”
The sewer project has been one of the town’s more contentious votes in recent years, eliciting prolonged debates during selectboard meetings, at public presentations and on social media. Those for and against the project took out ads in The Sun and wrote in letters to the editor to voice their opinions.
The controversy sustained through pre-Town Meeting on Monday night as residents continued to probe town officials about the project, wondering if there weren’t better alternatives to help clean up the bay – namely ones that wouldn’t use so much from the local option fund.
Town officials had hoped the project would reduce human wastewater pollution in Malletts Bay by fixing failing wastewater systems on bay properties, which are limited by the environmental constraints of the area. The project would have used up to $9.65 million in local option taxes to connect bay residents to the municipal sewer system. The LOT funds would have been repaid with future sewer fees without pulling from any property taxes.
At Monday night’s meeting, public works director Bryan Osborne said the project was 40 years in the making. He recalled countless drafts and work sessions to get to where it was today and said the town listened to feedback from a previous proposal decades ago, which voters also shot down.
When asked on Monday what will happen if the project failed, Osborne said the town will need to “assess why the project was not approved and see if the project could be revised to address those issues.”
“We certainly do have to face the consequences of the funding, being able to preserve the grant funds, being able to fight the significant inflationary factors on a project of this magnitude,” Osborne said.
Currently, the town stands to receive about $3.5 million in grant funds for the project, which was likely to increase to $5 million, Osborne said. Since the project failed, the availability of the funds might be up in the air. Additionally, if the town does take another few years to come up with another option for voters, inflation would add about $500,000 a year to the project cost, he explained.
He added the town could go back over the alternative projects suggested in the Environmental Protection Agency-funded study completed several years ago, but acknowledged that option is “not favorable” because professional engineers and scientists spent years vetting those options and determined the sewers were the best solution.
Selectboard chairwoman Nadine Scibek struck a similar tone, saying if the vote failed, she wasn’t sure when the board would return with a plan.
“It’s been 20 years,” she said.