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Waitsfield Select Board moves forward with decentralized wastewater systems

The Waitsfield Select Board added the consideration of a septic system for the Joslin Memorial Library to the official hearing it held this week on decentralized wastewater systems for the town.

At its April 8 meeting, the board heard from consultant Juli Beth Hinds of Birchline Planning and representatives from the state and Stone Environmental about progress on the first phase and first project of the decentralized wastewater project.

The first phase is a decentralized system that will service the Winter Park area in Waitsfield. The way the program will work is that the town has created a revolving loan fund that will provide property owners with a way to fix/expand distressed systems in the service areas of Irasville and Waitsfield Village.

In 2008, town voters turned down a proposed municipal wastewater project that would have created a centralized collection and treatment facility, the big pipe solution. In engineering that project, the town incurred $672,000 in engineering and planning fees. That funding needs to be paid back and in 2010 the town began working with consultants on ways to pay that debt back by a complex formula of loaning money to property owners and receiving credit for a portion of that money towards repayment of the $672,000.

In 2005, the town received a federal grant of $906,000 that was earmarked to reimburse 55 percent of the costs the town incurred for planning for the big pipe solution. The deadline to use those funds was extended once and now expires in 2015. The town has to begin repayment of the $672,000 five years after the failed big pipe bond vote and the town made its first payment last month.

By creating a loan fund the town can access the $906,000 grant to pay off its planning/engineering debt and create an income stream from property owners paying back their decentralized wastewater system loans.

"Over the life of the loan the town gets 100 percent of the principle with interest and pays back 45 percent of the funds to the state, keeps 55 percent of the funds and uses them to repay the big pipe debt," Hinds explained.

"It's not intuitive but it works. The upshot is that if the town sponsors enough projects it can retire its debt and provide a ready source of funds to loan property owners," she added.

Part of the process of conforming to the terms of the $906,000 federal grant is to assess the environmental and archeological impacts of any proposed decentralized system and this week's meeting was also the formal hearing on the environmental impacts of the Winter Park system which will be the first phase of the decentralized project.

To make sure that a possible second phase of the project (which could include the Joslin Library replacing its leach field, replacing its system or constructing a system with the neighboring Waitsfield United Church of Christ) is also eligible for accessing the $906,000 grant, the select board included it in this week's formal hearing by approving a motion to pursue archeological studies of the land around the library and the church.

Town residents who were at the meeting had questions about how the town incurred so much debt for the big pipe solution and wanted to know how that happened. Resident Jerry Miller asked how the debt got so big and why no one put the brakes on it. Resident Ted Tremper suggested that it was the biggest purchase the town had ever made and that it was made without voter approval.

"It was money spent under the table," Tremper said.

"It was authorized by the voters," select board chair Paul Hartshorn said.

"How do we prevent this from happening again and how do we know it's not happening right now?" Tremper continued.

Town resident Pete Reynells said that now that the town has municipal water people who might have been more conservative with their water usage would be using more water and taxing their septic systems. He also questioned how the town was going to get people to participate in the loan project.

"What's in the plan to force people to fix their systems?" Reynells asked.

"Force isn't a word we use. We do have property owners who are talking collaboratively about accessing this fund. Montpelier can force people to fix their systems, but my experience with the state is that they'd rather people do things voluntarily. One way to incentivize folks to do this, and the town has the authority to do this, is to consider providing some portion of the cost of the approved decentralized systems as a grant," Hinds said.

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