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Lack of public wastewater systems inhibits rural development

2019-12-12

By Elizabeth Gribkoff, as seen in vtdigger.org. Visit their website for the interactive components to the article: https://vtdigger.org/2019/12/12/lack-of-public-wastewater-systems-inhibi...

WOLCOTT — When talk turns to obstacles holding back rural Vermont, the lack of high-speed internet is often cited. The last gubernatorial race even saw a candidate who pitched broadband expansion as the new rural electrification.

But businesses looking to move to or expand in village centers face another major, less high-profile obstacle: almost two thirds of Vermont’s villages and downtowns are without public wastewater systems.

“It’s essential to the preservation of village centers in an age of sprawl,” Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, said of wastewater infrastructure.

Businesses and residents in those villages rely on wells and septic tanks with limited capacity, making it challenging if not impossible to, for example, attach a cafe to a general store or build an affordable housing unit by a town green. 

Wolcott is one of three villages that received a grant from the Northern Borders Regional Commission last year to come up with a plan for a wastewater system. And the proposals will most likely not look like the more traditional wastewater plants that discharge to a stream or river, as the villages would not have enough users to pay for that. Instead, these so-called “decentralized systems” would have a cluster of buildings hook up to shared septic system.

The village of Wolcott may be easy to breeze through on a drive from Hardwick to Morrisville. But there are buzzes of economic activity in the mostly gray and white buildings that line Route 15: a hairdresser, dance studio, tool repair shop, a sizeable warehouse and general store. 

During a walk through the village center this fall, Seth Jensen, principal planner for the Lamoille County Planning Commission, pointed to a small grassy lot where a shared septic system serves a ballet studio in the former town hall and the post office. To the north of the lot was Route 15 while the southern edge backed onto the Lamoille River.

The “very small area” for the septic system limits what residents can do in the former town hall without running out of wastewater capacity, said Jensen.

The Wolcott town plan notes that, without additional wastewater capacity in the village, “it would be difficult to develop even a moderately sized café” on most lots. 

“Rural communities are the land base for Vermont’s agricultural economy,” said Jensen, and although, “we’re doing more and more small-scale, on-site processing, that can’t really happen in the towns where the food is being grown” due to a lack of wastewater infrastructure.

Jim Roberts, chair of Wolcott’s planning commission, said that most of the village’s buildings were built in the 1800s,  and have older septic systems that have been grandfathered in. When residents want to make even minor upgrades to a home, like adding a bedroom, this can trigger expensive septic upgrades. 

He said that Wolcott will need to address wastewater issues to have “any economic development” in the village. 

In community sewer systems, collection pipes can be the most expensive parts, explained Jensen. Wolcott’s share of the Northern Borders grant should allow the village to find smaller areas for shared treatment systems to reduce how much pipe would be needed. 

In the past couple years, Vermont has seen a renewed focus from Gov. Phil Scott’s administration to work with villages interested in setting up community wastewater systems as a way to promote safe, compact development in rural areas. According to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, 219 of Vermont’s the 335 historic villages, downtowns and hamlets did not have public wastewater treatment as of 2015. Some of these communities also do not have municipal drinking water, posing an additional challenge to development. 

Historically, septic systems and wells were regulated on a town-by-town basis in Vermont. The rules changed in 2007, when Vermont became the last state in the country to set state standards for individual wastewater systems and wells. A landowner building a new home or replacing a failing septic system would now have to obtain a state wastewater permit. 

Warren, which completed a community wastewater system in the early 2000s with the help of an EPA grant, is held up as a model for other Vermont villages looking to promote compact growth without sacrificing environmental quality or public health. Some Warren residences updated existing septic systems, while 95 properties in the village connected to two, larger offsite systems. Meanwhile, the elementary school has its own, on-site treatment. Annual user fees for the system are between $450-700, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. 

Meanwhile, Brownsville, a village in West Windsor, built a sewer extension a couple years ago to hook into a nearby wastewater treatment plant. Soon after, the general came under new ownership and expanded to include a restaurant. 

Experts say decentralized wastewater systems may also be better for the environment in some cases as they can recharge groundwater and do not pipe pollutants directly into waterways. 

That is important because Vermont has a federally limit on how much phosphorus can be discharged into Lake Champlain. Lynnette Claudon, chief pollution control design engineer, said that all of the phosphorus pollution allowed from wastewater treatment plants has already been doled out, effectively meaning new plants can be built in that watershed. 

“There’s a lot of limitations with direct discharge wastewater systems in terms of the ability of … streams to accept pollutants without having degradation issues,” she said. 

Ingulsrud, of ACCD, said one of the challenges since launching the multi-agency village wastewater initiative a year and a half ago is helping communities that don’t have enough staff.

“It’s really hard if you’re just a selectboard or one sparkplug person in the community trying to deal with these complex issues,” she said.  

Forming a wastewater committee is the first step interested community members should take, said Claudon. Although the decentralized systems are less capital intensive than more traditional full-scale treatment plants, it would likely take a village at least 6-7 years to have one up and running. 

Walking along School Street, the other main drag in Wolcott, longtime resident Peter Teale highlighted a key challenge of communal wastewater: funding.

“People, you know, we’re impoverished here,”  he said. “We can’t afford to participate in building it, we can’t afford to maintain it.” 

Jensen said it is important to give people an option to join but noted a critical mass of users were needed to make the project work. The costs need to be spread over a number of users so that early joiners don’t have to shoulder the whole cost. 

“You want to build a system that supports new development but who pays the costs until the new development is there?” he said later. 

Claudon, of DEC, said that while it’s a “local decision” to decide whether to mandate hooking into the system, “obviously, for affordability reasons, it’s recommended that they require people to hook up.” 

Westford, a 2,000-person community in Chittenden County, recently put out a request for firms that could design a communal wastewater system for its village center. 

“I think one house has been built in the last 50 years in the village because we don’t have suitable soils for wastewater,” said Melissa Manka, town planning coordinator, 

The town hopes having a communal system will open up possibilities like more events in the brick community center and affordable housing by the town common. “Westford has a vision but without wastewater, it’s just a vision,” she said. 

A decade ago, the town started looking into what public and community properties might have suitable soils for a wastewater system, said Manka. Westford worked with the Vermont Land Trust to acquire land last year for a 130-acre town forest and farmland lined with a beloved stonewall, said Manka. And, perhaps the most unusual part of this conservation project is that it will provide the town with land for a seven-acre leach field. 

Around 50-60 residences would be able to hook into the planned wastewater system, said Manka, stressing that those numbers were conservative, pre-design estimates.

Costello, of Vermont Council on Rural Development, said his organization often works with communities looking to attract more families and entrepreneurs. Community members will realize they need more housing, especially affordable housing, but can’t obtain permits without improving wastewater treatment capacity, he said. 

Costello cited Montgomery, a forested Franklin County town just south of the Canadian border, as having a “creative community” looking at what they need to build a prosperous future.

“And the most creative, dynamic thing they can do right now is get sewer infrastructure,” he said.

Back in Wolcott, Jensen stopped in a parking lot behind the current town offices on School Street, next to a former, one-room train station that had, until recently, served as a daycare center. He gestured to a field behind the buildings as a potential site for a mound system that could at least serve the town offices and “allow something to happen” to the vacant schoolhouse next door. 

“And maybe it’s only one or two houses that connect to it and everyone else stays on their own leach field,” he added. “If that’s affordable for the town, if that meets the town’s needs — that’s a success.”