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What You Should Know about Sewers before Town Meeting

Sep 28, 2017 06:00AM ● Published by Pamela Johnson

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following information is based on a town document  entitled, “Wethersfield West Town Sewer Expansion Information” at www.bellinghamma.org. The document has been rearranged a bit and edited for clarity, without changing its intent. The town document would supercede this article in the event of a discrepancy.
 
Article 10 on the October 11 Special Town Meeting warrant proposes the expansion of town sewers to a portion of the Wethersfield neighborhood. The issue has arisen because the town is planning to reconstruct Taunton and Nason streets from Wethersfield Road to North Main Street. Taunton Street and the entire west side of the Wethersfield neighborhood is a viable area for the expansion of town sewer per the Sewer Master Plan.

The Sewer Master Plan shows that, to service Wethersfield West, a sewer interceptor and pump station must be installed on Taunton Street. The town needs to know if the interceptor and pump station should be included as part of the reconstruction project or if it should simply rebuild Taunton Street, which would quite likely end any possibility of town sewer expansion to the area known as Wethersfield West.

In 2016, the town sent out a questionnaire and held a few meetings in an effort to determine the extent of residents’ desire for town sewer. The results of these efforts were inconclusive, since there was not a resounding no or yes response. Of the 400 residents that received the questionnaire, only 240 responded (130 voted yes and 110 voted no).

Similar input provided at informational meetings also did not clearly indicate whether the residents in this neighborhood do or do not want sewer. A less-than-resounding majority does seem to want town sewer in the neighborhood, but no efforts to date have yielded a definitive answer. Bringing it to a vote at the upcoming Special Town Meeting is the only way to finally decide the matter.
 
The following information is provided for your consideration. 

Town Sewer Cost Estimates

There are three direct costs to homeowners associated with sewer expansion that residents need to understand before voting: sewer betterments, sewer connection to existing septic system pipe, and sewer-user charges.

1. Sewer Betterments—The cost per single family home for sewer expansion proposed in the Wethersfield West Sewer Plan is estimated at $14,100. That is the amount that the town would assess each homeowner as a sewer betterment fee. That betterment is applied to every property owner who gets a sewer stub regardless of whether or not they connect to the town sewer. 

The sewer betterment can be spread out and paid over 20 years, which is known as apportioning the payment. When it’s apportioned, the town effectively acts as the bank. The apportioned payment includes interest, not unlike a mortgage. The apportioned sewer betterment charge that will appear on the effected homeowners’ quarterly tax bill is estimated to be $260.00, calculated using 4-percent interest rate. 

(NOTE:  The sewer betterment and interest rate is determined near the end of the construction project; numbers included in this information comprise the town’s best estimate.)
If a property is sold and there is an outstanding balance due on the sewer betterment, it must be paid in full before the sale is completed. (This is also true of any payments due to the town.)

2. Sewer Connection to Home’s Existing Sewer Pipe—There is a cost to connect to the town sewer that can vary widely since it is based on the complexity of installing the underground pipes that would redirect the ones that now lead to your septic system over to the new sewer pipe. The town has no control over this cost and has no knowledge of what other homeowners have paid.

The DPW issues the permits for the sewer connection, but that permit does not contain any cost information. Homeowners must hire licensed contractors (drain layers) to construct the sewer connection. Variables related to depth of the pipe, whether or not you need a gravity sewer to a basement, existing site conditions (such as driveway, trees, landscaping), distance to the street, location of the existing septic system pipe, and other factors contribute to the cost. In short, the work done to connect your house to the town sewer stub is all your responsibility/expense.
 
The DPW has a list of licensed drain layers, but it should be noted that, to be on the list, a contractor simply needs to provethat they have the insurance, equipment, and experience, so due diligence is recommended.
 
Clean-up of the service pipe installation can be a bigger cost than the actual installation of the pipe. The town inspects the pipe installation, but does not get involved in the inspection of site restoration.

The existing septic tank will be crushed and filled when the sewer stub is connected. That work is also inspected by the town.

3. Sewer User Charges—Once connected to the town sewer you will incur sewer user charges, which will appear on your quarterly utility bill, along with charges for water and trash. The average customer’s utility bill (water, sewer, and trash) will go up by about $210 per quarter with sewer added. (This estimate is based on Bellingham Average Consumption of 18,000 gallons per quarter).

Benefits of Having Town Sewer:

Home sale value increases—This is nearly impossible to quantify, but any realtor will tell you that being able to check off “town sewer” is beneficial when selling a home.

Septic system concerns disappear—The Title 5 requirement to have septic systems tested before a home is sold is no longer an issue.

Failed/aging septic system concerns disappear—Rconstruction or repair of a failed or aging septic system will no longer be a concern.

New roadway paved from curb to curb—After the sewer is installed, the road will be resurfaced from curb to curb with new pavement. The funds for the paving work and some of the sewer work will come from a sewer debt-exclusion. This means that every taxpayer will help to pay for the cost of the post-sewer paving. The cost is estimated to be $25 a year for the average taxpayer to cover the sewer debt exclusion. 

Downside to sewer expansion:

• It has many costs as noted above.

• During construction, the roads will be a mess.

• Sewer-main installation and sewer-stub installation will affect traffic and often make for very poor road conditions.

• Heavy equipment will be working on your street.  Typically the pipe will be installed at a rate of 100 feet per day, but some areas will be more difficult and disruption and vibration can be expected.

• Some ledge will be encountered and ledge removal is noisy and causes lots of vibration regardless of the technique used to remove it.

• Water main breaks are not uncommon during and after the sewer installation project. Bellingham’s old water mains will likely not react well to vibration caused by the sewer construction operations. The town would like to replace all of the water mains, but that is very costly and not proposed at this time.

Info re Special Town Meeting Vote

The plan approved by the Selectmen includes funding of the Taunton Street sewer interceptor and pumping station outside of the sewer betterment. The cost of the Taunton Street sewer work will be via sewer-debt exclusion. (As previously explained, this means that every taxpayer will help to pay for the cost of the Taunton Street sewer work and resurfacing at approx. $25 per household.) This has the potential to provide several no votes from Town Meeting attendees who don’t live in the neighborhood. 

Other Important Factors:

• Even if you just rebuilt your septic system, there is no relief from the sewer betterment fee.  You have to pay the betterment regardless of your need or desire to connect to the town sewer. If you elect to not pay it, interest will continue to accrue and the amount due will appear on your real estate tax bills.

• There is no requirement that you connect to the town sewer. There may be a grace period during which the Selectmen will waive the $500 sewer application fee, but there is no town regulation or ordinance requiring a homeowner to connect.

• Once you have a sewer stub, you will not be allowed to repair your septic system if it fails.
• Most lenders require that homes with stubs connect to the sewer before they will approve a loan. If the connection has not been made at the time of sale, it is not unusual to have sewer connection built into the closing costs.

• If you have an irrigation system that is connected to the town water system or you want to install one, you can install a separate “irrigation” meter on which you will be billed only for water use. There are costs involved in having an irrigation meter. Residents need to do their own research to decide if this makes sense for them.

Additional Information:

Q: How did the town arrive at these project and betterment values?

A. Once it was decided to move forward and put the question to voters at a Town Meeting, the decision was made to get an engineering firm involved to refine the cost estimates. A test-probe project and preliminary engineering study was performed, and completed in May, resulting in a detailed analysis of the cost of various sewer expansion options and a much better ability to estimate the likely sewer betterment. The town also has breakdowns of the appurtenant costs such as overlay paving.


Q: What determines the limit of the sewer expansion?

A. The initial plan in 2016 was based on the 2002 Sewer Master Plan for properties west of Caroline Drive (Wethersfield West).
 
Recent input from residents received by the Selectmen at meetings and via signed petitions has helped shape the current sewer plan. The Selectmen voted on August 24 to establish the “Wethersfield West Sewer Plan,” which is the list of streets and homes that are part of the Plan.  Some streets were removed from the 2002 list; others considered for removal were kept as part of the plan. 

The sewer question is complex. A plan had to be established so that a Town Meeting article motion could be made and a vote taken. The Selectmen made their best estimate of what a viable sewer plan would be that has at least some chance of being approved. (It would be impossible to conceive of modifying the plan on the Town Meeting floor. Adding to the plan, or taking from it, during the Meeting would create a significant amount of confusion.) 

Background:

Bellingham had a sewer master plan completed in 2002, also known as the Comprehensive Water Resource Management Plan (CWRMP).  The CWRMP has been approved and any portion of it could be constructed without complicated permitting at any time. Despite having a master plan for sewer expansion, it will not happen unless the area residents petition the Selectmen to bring it before residents for a vote.
 
Two areas that are high on the sewer-needs list in the CWRMP for town sewer expansion are the Lake Hiawatha and Silver Lake neighborhoods.
 
There is no plan to “sewer the whole town.” The CWRMP was required by the state and was a study that noted where septic systems should remain as the best means to dispose of household wastewater. Septic systems promote local recharge of the aquifer, and, if properly installed and maintained, they should last a very long time.

Town sewer expansion areas identified in the CWRMP are the locations where the various site conditions make septic systems less desirable.  The CWRMP does not require that the town build town sewers; it identifies the areas where sewers would be  permitted.

Conclusion

If the town sewer and use of it were free, there would be no reluctance to approve this type of project. It is far from free, but the project may still be an improvement for which you may be willing to pay.

All residents in the potential sewer area (Wethersfield West) should do their own research and realize that their vote (whether it is for or against) is extremely important.
 
Article 10, Wethersfield West Sewer Design & Construction, must pass by a 2/3 majority of the residents in attendance at the Oct. 11 Special Town Meeting (rather 2/3 of the neighborhood residents or homeowners).

For the entire contents of the Special Town Meeting Warrant, visit www.bellinghamma.org.
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