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04/16/2009

By Lisa Loomis

Juli Beth Hinds, former director of the Mad River Valley Planning District, came before the Waitsfield Select Board this week to urge the town to consider a variety of alternatives to one centralized wastewater treatment facility for the town.

She, and planning commission chair Steve Shea, along with other planners and town residents, came before the board on April 13 to talk about what happens next in terms of wastewater. Town voters turned down a complicated three-part proposal for a wastewater system at Town Meeting in 2008. Since that time, the town has focused solely on a proposed water system.

Shea asked the select board for a sense of direction as the planning commission works on a Town Plan update. He asked the board for input on how municipal wastewater fits in with the future of the town and its Town Plan.

500-YEAR FLOOD

Hinds was planning district director in the late 1990s, including in 1998 and 1999. A 500-year flood in 1998 devastated Warren Village and Hinds was instrumental in obtaining and administering a multi-million-dollar EPA grant that led to the development of municipal wastewater in Warren and at the Warren Elementary School.

This week, Hinds said that trends in wastewater management at federal and state levels were focused on helping small communities find creative and workable alternatives to the traditional world view of septic -- either everyone is totally on their own or there is a full-blown municipally owned and operated septic system. She cited numerous areas of the country where communities have created a menu of systems that are tailored to the needs of the community and that respect the town's growth boundaries and ability to fund them.

"You've got huge opportunities here. You've got a public water system coming which is fabulous and gives you more options for wastewater. The idea of rethinking the elements of a sewer system and what it means to have a municipal system isn't about delaying or throwing out plans; it's about where do you have flexibility in the system. I think, with the federal stimulus bill, you have the opportunity to jump on a school system that could be expandable in the future, but get at that now because those funds are prioritized for decentralized systems for villages and growth centers. You add a school on to that and you go to the top of the list," Hinds explained.

GOOD NEGOTIATING POSITION

"You have a good negotiating position with several state agencies in terms of funding and getting approval. There is a lot of support for supporting growth centers," she continued.

"Are you saying that the people overseeing the grants may be more receptive to smaller, decentralized systems and large centralized systems?" asked Shea.

"There's great receptivity for viable alternatives that will be well managed," Hinds responded.

She explained that septic treatment and disposal technology had changed and evolved and said that newer types of pretreatment and shallower dispersal of treated effluent are allowing smaller drainfields and increased treatment capacity.

PUBLIC/PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS

Hinds also explained that there are public/private partnerships possible where, for example, Waitsfield might approach Shaw's and ask to expand that septic system in exchange for selling the new capacity or giving it to an entity. She said there were a variety of models for such approaches that relied on varying degrees of public ownership and/or management.

"This is something the EPA is encouraging and I think if you had an aggressive interest in doing this in Waitsfield you'd really have to talk about it with the state. The people at the EPA would love to see that get some legs in New England," Hinds said.

Select board member Sal Spinosa said he favored a decentralized approach and noted that Shea's question about how the planning commission should proceed regarding the Town Plan rewrite should not be viewed in light of the fact that the Town Plan calls for municipal septic but rather viewed from the perspective that the Town Plan, which called for septic, was up for renewal.

He said he guessed the new Town Plan, on the subject of septic and growth, would be different.

Board chair Kate Williams reminded the group that Shea and the planning commission needed direction on how to proceed.

NEED FOR SEPTIC

"We need to give the planning commission a charge to go forth or not go forth. We need to figure out how to stage that. Some of this exploratory work can be done by volunteers, but there is some threshold where there's going to be some cost," Williams said.

"We need to know if we should continue to try and implement the Town Plan. There is a need for septic in Irasville and the village. Those areas are the town center for the whole Valley. The wastewater issue has to be discussed. Growth is continuing. If we want to solve some of those issues, we need to know what's going to happen with wastewater. We'd like to investigate this further, as a group, and explore some options, new technologies, etc. and then come back to you when we're at the point of needing to spend money," Shea said.

"I think it would be appropriate to do that in two steps. The select board charges the planning commission to do the fact finding and come back to us. Then the second stage, where we provide input and direction and make decisions based on our options," board member Bill Parker said.

Town Administrator Valerie Capels told the board that there was still $115,000 on a loan that the town could spend on wastewater work, if state guidelines were met.

BILLS COMING DUE

Robin Morris, a former planning commissioner, said that the town has already spent $600,000 engineering a wastewater system and that that bill would land on the entire town tax base unless the town pursued some wastewater system -- in which case that $600,000 would be paid by users of the system, rather than the town as a whole.

Shea reminded the board that it was possible that the planning commission would review alternatives, options, technology and still come back in favor of a centralized system such as the one proposed for Waitsfield and board members acknowledged that that could occur.

Board members voted 4-1 to charge the planning commission with reviewing alternatives, technology and other wastewater options and to return to the select board regularly, but also when money needed to be spent.

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