Residents Criticize Falmouth's Wastewater Plans

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By: Christopher Kazarian
Published: 09/24/10

If it was public input the members of the Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan Review Committee wanted at their forum on Tuesday night at the Morse Pond School, then they were successful in that endeavor.

What they may not have expected was the public backlash against the committee’s revised plan for cleaning up the town’s estuaries.

As it moves east the plan is to use adaptive management, perhaps using large-scale sewering or possibly relying on alternative treatment methods to reduce the nitrogen load into the town’s coastal ponds.

Roughly 100 residents filled the auditorium at Morse Pond School where they called on the committee, which was formed in March to analyze the town’s Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan, to look for alternative and cheaper ways to address the issue.

The CWMP Review Committee's proposed plan calls for:

  • Sewering in two phases, starting with Little Pond and Davis Straits.
  • Neighborhoods south of Route 28 up to the Seapit peninsula would be sewered in the second phase.
  • Expansion of the current wastewater treatment facility at Blacksmith Shop Road.
  • $310 million to design and construct the system.
  • 7,350 homes in the project area, with a total cost per home of $43,000.
  • Property taxes would pay for $23,000 of the cost
  • A 50-year betterment would pay for the remaining $20,000. The average homeowner would pay about $700 per year in additional taxes.

The committee’s chairman, Virginia Valiela, and vice chairman, Peter F. Boyer, presented the technical and financial aspects of their draft findings, which their board will eventually vote on at the end of next month before it presents its recommendations to selectmen.

Ms. Valiela focused on her committee’s decision to treat wastewater at the town’s current facility as opposed to building a regional facility at the Massachusetts Military Reservation, where Falmouth’s waste would be piped. The MMR was the preferred option of engineers from Stearns & Wheler, the town’s consultant, which listed that site in its draft CWMP last December.

She said her committee wants to conduct a demonstration project in the initial phases, expected to last roughly 20 years, in an area of town that would not be sewered until the later stages of the project.

While this will be one alternative, Ms. Valiela said her committee found a number of ideas that may reduce the need for large-scale construction such as widening the inlet at Bournes Pond, installing permeable reactive barriers or using oyster beds to reduce nitrogen into the estuaries.

Mr. Boyer, the former town administrator, discussed costs, highlighting the fact that his committee has adjusted the project area for the first two phases to reduce the expenses for taxpayers.

He explained that portions of Falmouth Heights that are outside the Little Pond watershed as well as east Waquoit and portions of west Waquoit were eliminated because of the low-density housing. He estimated that eliminating the Waquoit area reduced the overall costs of the first phases by $35 to $45 million.

That has meant the initial stages of this project have been reduced to $310 million, he said, noting that “the basis for financing this becomes quite different.”


Residents weigh in

While the committee has seemingly reached a consensus on how the town should tackle the problem, there was plenty of opposition from residents on both the technical and financial aspects of the plan.

Joseph D. Apicella of Edgewater Drive East, Seacoast Shores, was the first to question the committee’s approach to funding the project through betterments versus taxes. Framing it in this way, he said, focuses solely on who will benefit the most through sewering.

“I suggest we look at who is causing this issue,” he said, stressing that all residents are contributing to the problem. As such, he said, the only equitable way to fund the project is entirely through property taxes “so the people causing it are the ones paying for it.”

With the committee’s solution, he complained that “the people getting the betterments are paying to fix the problem everyone is causing. You are putting the burden on a few people to get [the estuaries] cleaned up.”

A contrary opinion was provided by John L. Sullivan of Sandwich Road, East Falmouth, who pointed out that those residents living inland whose homes would not be treated would not only have to bear additional taxes, but also the costs of maintaining and replacing their septic systems. He called on town officials to expand the costs of the project to cover these expenses.

“It is not the people on the water who are taking a beating, it is the people not on the water,” he said.

Nutrient management vs. property rights

In addition to the costs, some were critical of the proposed nutrient management bylaw that will be before Town Meeting in November. Mr. Boyer explained the bylaw, which limits the expansion of bedrooms based upon current lot size, is necessary for the town to qualify for zero interest loans from the State Revolving Fund program. Based upon his proposal Mr. Boyer has laid out a plan to make funding for the project feasible by obtaining $100 million of SRF loans in Fiscal Year 2016.

Steven Moore of Pheasant Lane, Waquoit, was upset that the bylaw would take away homeowners’ rights to improve their property while still having to incur a $20,000 betterment. “How is that fair?” he asked, adding that the town is preparing to spend $300 million on this first phase and planning for zero growth in 40 to 50 years.

Committee member John B. Waterbury said any homeowner impacted by the bylaw who wants to add a bedroom can go to the board of health, which he sits on, for a variance. He said the bylaw acts much the same as a septic system does, which naturally prohibits growth on properties.

But Mr. Moore did not see the rationale in restricting property owners’ rights while also taxing them with betterments over 50 years, adding that most sewer systems do not even have a life of 20 to 30 years.

Homemade solutions

There were some who were critical of the committee’s approach of looking at a big-pipe solution for the problem rather than finding smaller solutions that could decrease costs significantly.

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Further reading on wastewater issues and alternatives is available on reporter Elise Hugus' blog, Under the Lens:

Those in this camp included Ronald J. Smolowitz of Hatchville Road, owner of Coonamessett Farm; Ronald D. Zweig of Fay Road, Woods Hole; and Hilde Maingay of Hatchville.

“What I am seeing is an old solution and I don’t think it is appropriate,” Mr. Smolowitz said.

He suggested that widening the inlets, growing oysters in the estuaries and urine-diverting or composting toilets would solve the problem at a fraction of the $310 million price tag being proposed. He said he uses at least one of these alternative technologies, referencing the composting toilet, in his home.

“I deal with my nitrogen,” he said, stressing that residents throughout town could do the same.

“Why are we jumping to $300 million?” he asked. “Until I see us solving the problem by pursuing other avenues, there is no way I will vote for something like this at Town Meeting.”

Mr. Zweig touched upon oysters, pointing out that harvesting these in 15 percent of Green Pond, for example, would solve the nitrogen loading there. He said he had calculations, in terms of the amount of acreage needed to grow oysters, for other estuaries as well.

He asked why the committee would not want to go this route, which is less expensive and would create a local industry that could provide revenue for the town.

He was against starting with the most expensive option as opposed to looking at much cheaper solutions.

While his board is proposing sewering the area around Little Pond first, committee member Eric T. Turkington said the board wants to find alternatives as it goes beyond that project area.

He pointed out that a $15 million request that will go before Town Meeting next spring would devote roughly $4 million toward the design of alternative technologies, which could be implemented into the plan.

And Ms. Maingay called for residents to change their habits, suggesting they follow her example in using composting toilets. She said the technology works and invited residents to see how her toilet works for themselves.

Hidden costs

There were some residents, such as Robert W. Donahue of Falmouthport Drive, who accused the committee of hiding additional costs, such as the fee to connect to the sewer and retrofit one’s home. Mr. Boyer addressed this issue, providing an estimate of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 residents could expect to pay for connecting their homes to a sewer system.

Still Mr. Donahue was skeptical, concerned that costs could spiral out of control for this project like the $86 million Falmouth High School renovation.

“I feel like I’m beating up on you guys as a committee. You’ve been doing a hell of a job,” he said, before arguing the proposal to sewer was not the right one. “Why don’t we do it cheaper and open up the estuaries and put in permeable [reactive] barriers?”

While the committee took plenty of heat from those in attendance, there were those, including Wendi B. Buesseler of Falmouth and Mr. Apicella, who said the town needs to act quickly and clean up its estuaries.

“I’m very concerned about delaying this and not moving forward because we will lose,” Ms. Buesseler said, mentioning the threat of a lawsuit from the Conservation Law Foundation that could force the town to restore its estuaries if residents fight these wastewater treatment proposals.

“We need to get serious about this,” Mr. Apicella said. “We’ve been watching our estuaries die. If we do nothing, people will leave [Falmouth].”

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