Sewer project: Hefty price tag, no new capacity

With a $48-million price tag, it’s no surprise concerns came up when the selectmen discussed a sewage treatment plant renovation expected to appear as a bond issue question on the November ballot.

“The $48-million proposed project, this is just upgrading the system? We’re not adding any capacity for future growth?” Selectmen Bob Hebert asked.

The District 1 sewage treatment on South Street is being redesigned and rebuilt to meet today’s tougher standards on nitrogen and phosphorous removal, First Selectman Rudy Marconi explained. The plant’s equipment — which goes 24 hours a day, seven days a week — is also beyond its 20-year life expectancy.

In addition to improving nitrogen and phosphorous treatment at the village plant, the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) also plans on closing the District 2 treatment plant that serves the area around the intersection of Routes 7 and 35, Marconi said, and then building a pipeline to South Street so wastewater from District 2 plant can be pumped to and treated at the renovated village sewer plant.

This would avoid the need for an upgrade at Route 7 plant. Even with added construction costs the pipeline is expected to save money in the long run, Marconi said, because making the Route 7 plant meet the state’s new standards would mean adding staff there — currently it isn’t staffed, most of the time. That would carry a substantial increase in operating costs.

The existing South Street plant has a treatment capacity of one million gallons per day, and the Route 7 plant has a capacity of 120,000 gallons per day.

The upgraded South Street plant would have a capacity of 1,120,000 gallons per day — replacement capacity for the two plants combined, but no more than that.

“I’m not sure I agree with that — not considering capacity for growth,” said Hebert.

Marconi and Selectwoman Barbara Manners recalled some of the history. A few years back when the town decided not to enlarge the treatment capacity of either plant, Ridgefield was coping with a mini-boom of developments under the state’s 8-30g affordable housing statute, which excuses developers from meeting most zoning regulations for residential projects in which at least 30% of units meet state affordability standards.

Many townspeople were unhappy about all the construction under 8-30g — much of it on on near Main Street — and they vehemently opposed increasing the sewer plant’s treatment capacity.

“Under 8-30g, an applicant cannot force you expand your sewer capacity,” Marconi explained.

So, the capacity limits of the sewer plant were viewed as an eventual de facto cap on multifamily development.

And an expanded plant capacity as an invitation to land developers — so the decision was not to enlarge it.

As it happens, a four-year moratorium that the town obtained on 8-30g applications ends in early October — so that pressure may be returning.

Hebert still found the thinking hard to accept.

“We’re spending $48 million and it’s going to meet the demands to today, without any concern for the future?” he said.

“What it’s going to meet,” Marconi said, “is the new limits on nitrogen and phosphorous.”

Cost sharing

The selectmen’s discussion of the sewer project also looked at its costs — and how the total might be shared around.

The bond issue will be for a little more than the estimated cost — leaving some room for surprises, including a potential rise in the cost of steel due to President Trump’s steel tariffs.

“The total amount is $46 million, so we’re bonding $48 million,” Marconi said.

“That would potentially cover any excess for tariffs.”

The town’s eventual cost is expected to be reduced by an $11.5 million state grant — though the full $48 million is what voters will be asked to approve for the fall bond issue.

“It’s really $36 million?” said Hebert.

“With value engineering,” Marconi said.

“My concern is the state of Connecticut bails on the $11.5 million,” said Selectman Steve Zemo.

The bond repayment cost would be divided up with sewer users — who benefit most directly from the plant — carrying most of the burden.

Sewer bills will go up.

“$440 per unit could as much as double,” Marconi said, “but that would be over several years.”

The town’s general taxpayers would also be asked to cover a portion of the cost — they benefit from living in a town with infrastructure to support commercial and multi-family development in the town center, providing shopping, building the tax base.

“There’ll be $8 million — the town’s general tax package,” Marconi said. “Then, there’s a portion that’ll come from septic dumping fees.”

The town charges when septic system pumpers empty out their trucks at the treatment plant would increase, and the town would pass that charge on to homeowners getting their system’s pumped.

How to balance all the costs and benefits is being studied by a consulting firm the town hired, Marconi said.

Zemo also worried about voters passing the $48-million bond question.

Marconi said there was tight schedule, and not meeting it could cost the town a chance at the state grant.

“Let say this whole thing goes down the tubes in November,” Zemo said. “You’re telling me we’re going to lose the $11.5 million?”

On Tuesday night, the Board of Finance voted 4-0 to approve sending the $48-million question to voters.

“If it fails, we lose the grant and we’ll have to go back to the drawing board and pare it down,” said Marconi after an hour-long discussion. “We’d probably have to cut out the decommissioning of the Route 7 plant and see how much can be saved by stalling it.”

He told the finance board that there will be public hearings in the fall, including Saturday morning meetings, for residents who have questions about the rate increase.

“We’ve had meetings and nobody has showed up... we’re trying to get the word out there,” he said. “I hope people wake up and begin asking for more information because everyone’s going to have to pay — no exceptions.”

Expanded district?

The town has also done some studies on extending sewer lines into two residential areas that have had septic system problems.

“The WPCA looked at two areas, Marcardon and Soundview,” Marconi said.

But state environmental regulators had cooled to the idea, he said, since it would mean that water pumped out of one watershed in the southwest of town would be released after treatment into a different watershed.

“If we sewer it, we’re taking water from the first water district of the City of Norwalk,” Marconi said.

Board members asked about Branchville, where the town envisions some long-range economic growth.

Marconi said studies found the cost of pumping Branchville’s waste to the plant in town center was high.

“That was the most expensive alternative,” he said.

It might make sense to use the Georgetown sewer plant.

“Branchville would probably be an interlocal agreement with the town of Redding,” he said.

Redding has long been reluctant to sell-off any of the Georgetown plant’s excess capacity, hoping for an eventual development of the former wire mill property in Georgetown.

“They’re becoming more approachable as time goes on,” Marconi said.