Costs, capacity concerns discussed at sewer hearing

Who’ll shoulder the bulk of the $48 million projected cost of the sewer plant renovation?

How can the burden be fairly shared between houses, condos, commercial properties hooked up to the sewer system — properties that directly benefit — and homes off the sewer lines, whose only use of the plant comes once every few years when their septic systems are pumped out?

Different perspectives on this question were shared by citizens who turned out for Saturday morning’s public hearing on the planned sewer plant project.

“It should be really simple here,” said Joe Savino, a homeowner outside the sewer district. “You use the system, you pay the bill.”

A homeowner on sewer lines offered the other view.

“I think it boils down to quality of live, and quality of town,” he said.

“The sewer system is an integral part of our town. You go to our library, you go to Lounsbury House...

“You go to Stop & Shop, you may not use the bathroom, but they use a lot of water,” he said.

“Main Street is our star — quality of life, we need this system.”

About a dozen people turned out for the Saturday morning public hearing, asking questions and offering opinions in back-and-forth discussion during which many speakers did not give their names.

Amy Siebert, chairwoman of the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA), outlined the projected costs and hoped for grants that would reduce it by about a quarter.

The $48 million total projected cost could be reduced by three grants totaling $11.5 million that the town is optimistic about securing, which would lower RIdgefielders’ cost down to $37.5 million. But eligibility for the grants requires that the project be designed, put out to bid, and a contract awarded by July 2019 — to get that done the money needs to be approved by voters this November, when it’ll be on the ballot along with local and state candidates, as well as Ridgefield’s charter questions.

Town officials admit they don’t have a good back-up plan if voters don’t approve the sewer plant question on November’s election ballot — and are planning another hearing Wednesday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. in town hall.

Seibert said town officials were “running on the gerbil wheel really fast” to assemble as much information as possible and answer all the open questions — which currently include exactly how costs will be shared between direct hooked-up sewer users and septic system owners.

“We need that positive vote in November,” she said.

Grants? Interest?

Citizens at the hearing questioned whether the town could count on the three grants, given that the state is known to have serious financial difficulties of its own.

“Nothing is guaranteed in life,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi. “The state has committed. We do have a letter.”

The state awards the grants, but they’re mostly federal money, he said.

Other municipalities — Siebert alluded to 44 — that are seeking grants for similar projects.

“The money is being fought for,” Marconi said.

John McNicholas questioned the WPCA’s $48 million cost estimate because it didn’t factor in $10 or $15 million in interest cost as loans are repaid over the 20 years.

“I’m paying $63 million for a sewer system I don’t use.” McNicholas said.

There was heated discussion of the town’s plan to kick in $8 million from general fund — paid by all taxpayers — to spread the cost among all property owners and reduce the burden on sewer users.

“Why am I being asked to finance the $8 million?” said Joe Savino.

“I feel I’m being double and triple-charged, here … I feel I’m subsidizing some of the craziness going on in the village.”

“I get it,” Siebert said. “I live outside the sewer sewer boundary area.” But she added, “I go to the library, I go to the playhouse. We need it, to have this downtown.”

Within the sewer districts, fees do vary with use levels. Siebert said a single family home pays for one sewer use unit, equal to about 350 gallons per day. Commercial or multifamily properties are assigned more units, based on their size and the type of uses.

“They have more use units, so they pay more,” she said.

Still, there were objections.

“A single person in Fox Hill is playing the same as a family of 12 on one of the mansions on Main Street,” one resident said.

It came out — an issue raised by John Katz and confirmed by tax collector Jame Berendsen-Hill — that some smaller condominiums, like one-bedroom units in Casagmo and Fox Hill — pay for less than the 350 gallons per day, being assessed for three-quarters rather than a full sewer use unit.

There was some talk of basing sewer fees on water meter readings — although not all properties on the sewer system currently have water meters.

“You pay for what you use,” Savino said. “...If you go user-based, this gets real simple.”

Siebert reiterated the benefits the sewer system provides even for people who aren’t hooked into it.

“The sewer system allows us to have a vibrant commercial center, our downtown” Siebert said. “It allows us to have good water quality. It allows us to have a place to dump when we do get our septic tanks pumped.”

Capacity question

The overall plan is to close and demolish the sewer plant at Routes 7 and 35, and pump that sewage to the treatment plant on South Street, which will be upgraded to meet the state’s new tougher standards on nitrogen and phosphorous.

The WPCA’s plan doesn’t include an increase in capacity, It will have a 1,120,000 gallons per day capacity, which is equal to the South Street plant’s 1 million gallons a day capacity, plus the 120,000 gallons a day capacity of the Route 7 plant which is being closed.

“We are have not planned for an upgrade in capacity,” Siebert said. “We did look at the existing zoning and the growth we’ve seen…

Of the current 1 million gallons per day capacity at South Street, about a 150,000 gallons per day — around 15% — aren’t being used, she said.

“We have room in the plant for what might be built in District One under current zoning,” Siebert added.

There were questions about the capacity issue. ONe speaker alluded to the state’s 8-30g affordable housing law that allows developers with 30% of units meeting “affordable” guidelines to circumvent most zoning regulations. That got a four-year moratorium from the state on 8-30g application, but it end early October.

“I have heard that on Oct. 4 we’ll have an onslaught of 8-30g applications,” said one speaker “… I’ve heard there are 19 8-30g applications.”

John Katz of the Planning and Zoning Commission agreed there might be some post-moratorium influx of 8-30g applications, but he hadn’t heard anything like 19.

First Selectman Maronci said there were three known 8-30g applications already in, on Governor Street, Prospect Ridge Road, and on Danbury Road — and that project is planned to use a septic system, not the sewers.

“I’ve heard of possibly two or three more,” Marconi said.

(Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli later told The Press he’d heard of “one or two” potential additional 8-30g applications in the near future.)

Another speaker wondered why the plans didn’t allow more capacity to accommodate commercial development along Route 7.

“It could be a future opportunity for expanding the tax base,” he said.

Who uses the Route 7 plant now?

Siebert said there are “179 accounts we have from Route 7” — including restaurants, the Ridgefield Crossing condominiums, the Pond’s Edge office buildings.

Environmental benefit

The environmental will benefit from meeting the state’s new standards for removing more nitrogen and phosphorous from the sewer plant discharge.

“By removing nutrients from the wastewater,” Siebert said, “we’re not loading up the environment with those nutrients.”

Effluent discharged by both the District One and District Two treatment plants goes into the Norwalk River, which empties into Long Island Sound.

Improved wastewater treatment will “reduce the likelihood of hypoxia” — absence of oxygen in areas of water bodies like the Sound, that can result in die-off of aquatic life. It will also “reduce the likelihood of algal blooms,” Siebert said.

“We have a high quality environment,” she said. “Let’s keep it that way.”

Pipeline’s route

Siebert reviewed the route of the forced main sewer line that will take effluent from District Two, at Routes 7 and 35, to the renovated District One plant on South Street.

The pipe is expected to go from Route 7 to Haviland Road, to Limekiln Road, to Lee Road, to Farmingville Road, to Ligi’s Way, to South Street.

Siebert dismissed worries that areas along the pipeline might be opened up to more development, saying properties outside the sewer district boundaries won’t have access to the line. “You have no rights to connect to that main,” Siebert said.

There are practical considerations, as well.

“You don’t connect individual homes into a force-main that is taking sewage from a whole sewershed,” she said.

Cost is the reasons the WPCA plans to close the sewer plant at Routes 7 and 35, and pump that sewage to the renovated treatment plant on South Street. Upgrading the Route 7 plant to meet the tougher state standards on nitrogen and phosphorous would require construction, and also adding staff at a District Two plant that currently runs without staff most of the time. This would add substantially to operating costs year after year.

Today the South Street plant employs shifts of five workers most of the time, Siebert said.

“To have a staff, seven days a week, that starts adding up over 20 years,” she said.”...There are mechanics, there’s a lab … taking samples, seeing how the system has to be tweaked,” she said.

“It’s physics, biology, chemistry.”

Folks at the hearing said the town would need good arguments to sell voters such a costly project.

“You may have trouble passing this if the single family home people say ’I don’t want to pay this bill,’” one speaker warned. “You need to tell the non-users why they should be carrying this cost. They’re the majority here.”