Who pays for sewer upgrades? Homeowners argue costs at second hearing

Why are homeowners on septic systems possibly going to be on the hook for $8 million to upgrade the town’s aging wastewater treatment plant?

That was the question posed again and again by residents — about 35 of whom showed up — at an information meeting on the sewer upgrades hosted by the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) on Oct. 17.

“You’re dumping an $8-million cost on people,” said Don Daughters. He argued that “casual users” of the town sewer plant — septic users who use the system only once every three years for a holding tank pump-out — are being burdened with the cost of upgrading the sewer.

The project is expected to cost around $48 million to upgrade the current South Street plant, which serves businesses and homes in the center of town about as far south as Olmstead Lane, and as far north as Tanton Hill Road.

The town is expected to receive roughly $11.5 million in state grants to cover part of the cost of the upgrade, but the project has to be wrapped up and ready to break ground by July 2019 to get the money.

“We’re going to ask the town to vote on something that’s on sale today?” asked resident John West, regarding the state’s grant incentives.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said that was one way to look at it.

Of the remaining $36.5 million cost, $28.5 million would come from increased yearly fees to sewer users, and $8 million would come from the town’s general fund — the pool of money the town raises through taxes, according to Don Chelton of AE COMM, a consultant hired by the town.

John McNicholas, a former Police Commission member, suggested that the project should be done, but raised doubts that the state would hold up its end of the $11.5 million in grants — despite repeated assurances from Marconi that the funding is secured.

“I hope that’s in writing, I really do. Because this state is going to have a hard time making some of these commitments,” said McNicholas.

Route 7 plant

Under the plan, the Route 7 plant, which serves a smaller sewer district on the northeast corridor of Route 7, will be decommissioned and demolished. Sewage from that district would be pumped to the South Street wastewater treatment facility along a high-pressure line, with a new pump station added along Route 7, according engineer Jon Pearson.

While the question of who would pay for the South Street upgrade turned heated at times, most of the people who attended the meeting seemed to agree that the upgrades need to be done. West called the project “perfectly reasonable” because the sewer is part of the town infrastructure.

And not all were against putting some of the cost on the general taxpayer.

“We’re looking at [an increase of] $48 a year? That’s 13 cents a day,” said Joan Zawacki.

The WPCA estimates that the $8 million from the general fund would cost the average Ridgefield taxpayers about $48 more than they currently pay.

Flat or usage fee?

But Joe Savino, a police commissioner, argued that the upgrade costs should fall on sewer users, who should be charged based on the amount of wastewater they put through the system.

“Pay for what you use,” he said.

“I don’t see anyone underwriting my septic,” he added.

Marconi said that the town sewer fees had been kept at a flat rate to ensure that funding for the system remains steady, even as sewer users move or downsize their households in town.

Finance Board Chairman Dave Ulmer, who also attended the meeting, said he was concerned that about 20% of the cost to the town — $8 million out of the total $36.5 million after state grants — would be coming out of the general fund. “We have to allocate resources within the community,” he said “The 20%, I think, is just high.”

He asked whether the town could consider re-selling the site of the Route 7 plant once it is demolished to recoup some of the cost.

Under pressure

The high pressure line to pump sewage from Route 7 to the South Street plant also drew attention from residents.

Savino, another resident, expressed concern that developers could one day sue the town to let them tap into the sewer line. That could enable the developers to build large-scale housing projects under the state’s affordable housing law, Savino said.

Under the state law, developers can circumvent local zoning restrictions on things like building height and housing density, so long as they agree to set aside a percentage of the housing units as affordable.

But Marconi noted that the line runs outside of the sewer district, meaning a developer would not receive a permit from the town to access the line. And Kevin Briody, a member of the WPCA, noted that the pump line is under such tremendous pressure that a developer would have to build their own pumping station to access the line — or risk having sewage blowout into the development.

John Katz, a longtime member of the Planning and Zoning Commission who also attended the meeting, noted that two affordable housing applications currently being considered — one at 233 Danbury Road and the another at 28 Great Hill Road — both have plans for their own septic systems.

He suggested the costs should be shared by all.

“Many of us don’t have any kids in the schools,” said Katz. “We all pay for the schools … we all pay to plow the roads.”

“It doesn’t seem to me to make any sociological sense to try to fractionalize [the costs],” he added.