November 19, 2012

Sewer plan defeated, but won't be forgotten

Windham voters, who buried the cost-laden proposal Nov. 6, could see it again in two years.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Windham residents aren't convinced that the environmental and economic benefits of public sewer are worth the cost -- not yet, at least.

Voters resoundingly rejected a proposal Nov. 6 to build a $38 million sewer system along parts of Routes 302 and 202, but most have acknowledged that the town will need it eventually. The question is when.

"The issues aren't going to go away and the problems aren't going to solve themselves," said Town Manager Tony Plante.

Plante said the town will continue to monitor groundwater in North Windham. Aside from that, he said, the Town Council will have to decide what step to take next, if any.

Thomas Gleason, one of two town councilors who objected to holding a referendum on the sewer project, said he believes Windham should wait at least two years before asking voters about sewers again.

"The cost was too much. People just can't afford it right now," he said.

A proposed $1 tax-rate increase would have paid for most of the project -- adding $200 in annual taxes for the owner of a $200,000 home. Fees also would have been imposed on about 450 properties that could have connected to the sewer.

For homeowner Patrick Corey, the tax-rate increase was the hardest part to accept.

Corey, who led opposition to the proposal by developing an anti-sewer website and distributing 200 no-to-sewer signs, believes the town should hold off on another vote for at least five years -- and then come back with a financing plan that's "dramatically different."

As far as environmental concerns, officials say there's no real answer to how long groundwater in North Windham can withstand the contamination caused by septic systems. Plante said studies show the contamination level is about half of the limit for safe drinking, the state standard.

"I don't know if we've reached a critical threshold," he said, but he pointed out that a sewer system would take several years to put in place after getting voter approval.

Robert Gerber, a geologist and engineer who analyzed groundwater quality in North Windham over several years, told the town in 2009 it was time to start making plans for dealing with the increasing contamination, Plante said.

Gerber said Tuesday, if that doesn't mean sewer, it could mean controlling growth, requiring more elaborate septic systems, or limiting the use of salt on roads and in large parking lots.

"They're going to have to turn back to being more careful about land use," he said.

That could conflict with Windham Economic Development Director Tom Bartell's job to bring businesses into town.

He said he will already have a hard enough time trying to convince companies to come to Windham when all nearby commercial hubs can offer a connection to sewer. The cost of installing and maintaining a septic system, and buying enough land to have one, could be a dealbreaker for some, he said.

"It puts us at a disadvantage when people are looking to locate their business in an area," said Bartell.

Some smaller businesses might still crop up along the Route 302 corridor, but don't expect any biotech firms or companies with a couple hundred employees without sewer, said Larry Eliason, of Butts Commercial Brokers in Windham.

"I don't think you're going to see big business parks," he said.

For Windham resident Suna Shaw, limiting development was a reason to vote against the project.

"We're kind of getting too big," she said, just before casting her ballot.

Bartell argued that without new businesses and new residents, a town can't continue to thrive. "Any community that is not growing is actually starting to die," he said.

Jarrod Maxfield, an outspoken opponent of the proposal, said he believes economic development was the main reason town officials wanted sewer sooner, but they couched it in environmental concerns to "make it more palatable for people."

"I think people saw through that," he said.

Maxfield thinks it will take at least a couple of years and a lot of reworking to change the minds of voters.

"It just got murdered," he said of the 6,513-to-2,036 vote. "It just looked like a bad idea."

Plante said despite the outcome, which wasn't "really unexpected," holding the vote served to inform residents of something town officials have been talking about for a long time.

"At least there are several thousand more people aware of this than there were before," he said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at

lbridgers@pressherald.com

 

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