WINDHAM – Windham residents reacted strongly at Tuesday night’s public hearing on the proposed sewer project, with several saying the multi-million dollar project’s taxes and fees would be difficult to pay for those already struggling to make ends meet.

While the majority spoke against the project, others voiced support, saying the Windham schools’ sewer system is in danger of failing and that commercial development in North Windham can’t thrive without a sewer system.

The hearing came in advance of the council’s meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 18, when councilors are scheduled to vote on whether to send the issue to voters by way of a Nov. 6 referendum.

As proposed, the sewer system, estimated to cost $37.8 million, would serve North Windham and Windham Center and be paid for primarily by users and taxpayers. Those living along the route would pay about $685 yearly for sewage removal. Those living on the route would also be subject to a one-time betterment fee of $12.30 per frontage foot as well as a ready-to-serve fee of $285 per year if users don’t choose to hook up. (Farms would be exempted.)

Yearly taxes for users and other taxpayers are expected to rise about $1 per $1,000 of property valuation. Users would have to pay for their own connection costs as well.

While councilors and staff continue to refer to the project as a $37.8 million project, the sewer would cost more than $60 million when factoring in 30 years of debt payments at 3.5 percent. Most speakers Tuesday night mentioned the high costs as a reason not to pursue the project.

Everett Goff, who walks North Windham daily, said he was concerned about the topography of the proposed sewer route, which would affect the project’s costs. He said most of the route from the rotary to Westbrook “is all ledge.” He said planners can expect at least a 25-30 percent cost overrun to deal with blasting.

Goff suggested the town aim to find a different way to deal with sewage entering the North Windham Aquifer, the largest in the state. He said businesses, which have been pinpointed as the source of the pollution, should be required to install better septic systems and larger leech fields.

Margaret Pinchbeck, who battled town hall regarding the construction of the quarry on Nash Road, has financial concerns for the homeowners and business owners along the proposed sewer route. Pinchbeck said she owns about 800 feet of frontage along Route 302 near the rotary, which would be subject to a one-time betterment fee.

“That’s over $10,000 alone. I don’t know how I’m supposed to pay for that,” Pinchbeck said.

Barbara Muir, wife of former town Councilor Bob Muir, also balked at the betterment fee, which for her property in North Windham would cost $6,765.

“That’s way too expensive,” Muir said. “A lot of people in this town are not that wealthy … so I say down with the sewer.”

Muir was also concerned about the impact on small businesses, which would be required to connect.

“Small businesses won’t be able to afford this,” she said.

Sheila Corey, of River Road, questioned the need for a sewer from a pollution standpoint. She said the town has not posted the 2010 and 2011 nitrates data from test wells in North Windham, and 2009 data show nitrate levels lower than those reported in 2003.

“According to the North Windham groundwater quality update dated Nov. 16, 2010, the concentration of nitrates was less than 3 mg per liter, well under maximum contamination level of 10 mg per liter,” she said. “This was actually lower than the nitrate level during the winter of 2003 of 4.5 mg per liter.”

Corey said the findings are minuscule and compared it with the nitrate consumption rate for vegetables.

“For your information, vegetables are the primary source of nitrates in our diet, with arugula containing 4,677 mg per liter,” she told councilors.

Corey also questioned why residents should bear the cost of the sewer when councilors have long-stumped for the project as a boon for North Windham’s commercial expansion.

“If it is to attract business to the area, let businesses pay for the lion’s share,” she said.

Several speakers voiced frustration that taxpayers can’t afford the several hundred dollars in additional taxes the sewer would require per year, especially since most taxpayers would not be connected to the system. The sewer would serve Route 302 from North Windham to Westbrook as well as short offshoots along Route 115 and Route 35 and a longer branch headed west on Route 202 connecting the school campus.

“As currently proposed, this project does not provide a compelling case for a significant majority of residents to fork over their hard-earned and limited resources,” said Patrick Corey. “Taxation, to subsidize a sewer from which residential taxpayers derive no benefit, is just wrong. We are in a deep recession and people are hurting.”

Some residents, such as Tom Madsen, had further questions regarding the project. Madsen asked whether the 64 miles of private roads in Windham would be served by the sewer. He also wanted to know whether the council would come back to voters in a few years asking to expand the system. Initial sewer plans, priced at an estimated $67 million, called for a more elaborate system that would have connected many more sections of Windham.

Speaking in support of the project was commercial broker Larry Eliason, who said the sewer would open up North Windham for new businesses.

“I see sewer as an investment in the community,” Eliason said. “And I think this should have been addressed 30 years ago.”

Eliason lamented Windham’s inaction in 1970s and 1980s, when development took off and when federal grants could have subsidized a system. He said Windham shouldn’t wait any longer to build the sewer since in a few years, “this could be a $250 million project with the federal government telling us to do it in a certain way.”

While some speakers said Windham residents have not received enough education on the project to vote in November, Eliason said the matter is ready for referendum since residents have been privy to conversations at the council level for more than two years.

“I think the referendum should go to the taxpayers of Windham and let the taxpayers decide,” Eliason said.

Toby Pennels, a longtime member of the Windham school board and Republican candidate for House District 111, rose “not to advocate one way or the other,” he said, but to remind voters and councilors that the wastewater treatment system at the Windham school campus, which was designed and built in 1964, is in poor shape, having received warnings in the past by regulatory agencies.

“It’s paramount for the schools and city to be proactive and realistic,” Pennels said, since 3,000 people use the system. “We do have a timeline. My best estimate is within 10 years or less, that we’re going to have to do something with our campus.”

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