Wastewater project delay allows fine-tuning
Although hoping to move forward this spring on a proposed $1.5 million wastewater project, the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee agreed to put the plans on hold at a meeting last month. The decision stemmed from the land-use subcommittee's recommendation that the school committee delay a vote on authorizing bonding until all of the project details are in place.
"The school committee decided not to send the matter for a vote at upcoming Island town meetings," superintendent of schools James Weiss explained in a phone call last week. "I think we'll have a good plan in place either in the fall or spring next year."
The project's delay also factors into construction plans for a proposed new YMCA facility across the street from the high school. Last summer, after working with the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) staff and a study committee to explore wastewater treatment alternatives, the YMCA leadership opted to join the high school in a joint solution.
The wastewater project calls for constructing a new pump station at the high school, which the Y would tie into, that would pump wastewater from both facilities to the Oak Bluffs wastewater treatment plant. Once treated, the wastewater would be pumped back to a leaching field at the high school, under the running track.
YMCA President Chuck Hughes said in a recent phone call that the school committee's decision to postpone the wastewater project does not impact the Y's plans at this point, during the fundraising phase.
"Obviously, there is additional information the school committee needs to gather - and it's all appropriate information - so that when the time comes, if they decide to do the wastewater project, I think they will be able to do it in more than enough time to tie in with the Y project," he said.
The area around the high school is located within the Lagoon Pond watershed, which makes the resolution of wastewater issues more critical under the stricter nitrogen-load limits of the Martha's Vineyard Commission's current water quality policy.
"If the school committee [eventually] doesn't decide to do the wastewater project, we'll have to go to plan B," Mr. Hughes said. "There is a plan B and always has been, but plan B is neither as good environmentally or financially."
The Martha's Vineyard Commission prefers the joint wastewater solution for the Y and high school, Mr. Hughes said, because, "No matter what we did, if we did something other than that wastewater treatment, we would still be adding to the lagoon's long-term problem."
If a shared wastewater solution is not possible by the time the new Y facility opens, the Y proposes constructing an on-site enhanced nitrogen-reduction Title V wastewater treatment system, which would require a waiver of the Martha's Vineyard Commission's current nitrogen-loading limits.
The high school's leadership shares environmental concerns as well, Mr. Weiss said. "Even without the Y, we would move forward, because we need to be good neighbors," he said. "If we're loading the pond with nitrogen, and there's a way to avoid that, we need to address that."
A joint effort
Last spring, Oak Bluffs voters rejected a proposal for the town to borrow $350,000 to begin the design and engineering process for a shared package wastewater treatment plant at the high school, on the grounds they were being asked to foot the bill for a regional project.
A few weeks later, Mr. Weiss, Island town officials, representatives from organizations near the high school, including the YMCA and Martha's Vineyard Community Services, abutters to the properties, and members of the Oak Bluffs conservation commission and the Martha's Vineyard Commission met at the Oak Bluffs wastewater plant to discuss the project's future.
As wastewater plant operator/manager Joe Alosso explained, by law, the high school must build a wastewater treatment plant soon or upgrade its system, because it is operating at maximum capacity. No bathroom facilities - not even a faucet - can be added at the athletic fields or other public buildings on the high school grounds, such as the Rebecca Amos Institute or MVTV. The high school also must be equipped to handle increased wastewater loads in its role as a designated emergency shelter.
Following the meeting, a study committee made up of representatives from the various entities worked to explore wastewater treatment alternatives with the Martha's Vineyard Commission's executive director Mark London and Water Resources Planner Bill Wilcox. They concluded that the option of building the wastewater pump station at the high school offered the most workable solution.
Last fall, the high school committee had prepared to bond the wastewater project in the fiscal year (FY09) budget, based on an estimated tie-in cost of $1.43 million. However, in November, based on an updated estimate of almost $2 million from Schofield, Barbini, and Hoehn, the land use subcommittee recommended removing the cost of the bonding, about $135,000 in principal and interest, to reduce the high school's FY09 budget.
The subcommittee also suggested possibly funding the project through separate articles on Island town meeting warrants.
On again, off again
In January, the high school committee members agreed to move ahead on the project and voted to authorize the bonding. However, in February they rescinded their vote because the school system had not notified the Island towns properly.
As Mr. Weiss explained, under state law, member towns in a regional school district have 60 days after a school committee votes to adopt a bond issue to express approval or disapproval of the debt at a town meeting. It only takes one town's disapproval to turn it down.
The school committee changed the date of its March meeting to the 17th so that if its members did vote again to go ahead with the wastewater project bond issue, it would fall within 60 days of annual town meetings, including Aquinnah's in May, in time to put an article about the project on town warrants.
Several Island town officials expressed concerns, Mr. Weiss said, including Edgartown Finance Committee member Larry Mercier, who balked at towns approving a bond issue without a written financial agreement from the YMCA in place. Given the questions raised and the need to firm up many of the project's details, the land use subcommittee voted on March 5 to recommend that the school committee not take action on authorizing bonding at the meeting on March 17.
In the meantime, Mr. Weiss said in a phone call last week, he has been working to bring the project to fruition. The school district's attorney has drafted a document to put the YMCA's verbal commitment to the project in writing, he said, which includes paying roughly 10 percent of the wastewater project's costs.
"They can't pay more than that, because these are municipal bonds that we're going for, and in order to keep them tax-exempt municipal bonds, an entity like the Y can pay only 10 percent," Mr. Weiss explained.
The school district also lacks written agreements from Oak Bluffs town officials and the Oak Bluffs Wastewater Commission. Mr. Weiss said he had drafts of all of the documents sitting on his desk last week and planned to get them to the appropriate parties within a few days.
Mr. Weiss said he expects designs for the wastewater project from Schofield, Barbini and Hoehn in early April. He also hired Tighe and Bond, a Massachusetts consulting firm, to provide guidance on other details of the project. Construction permits from the state also are in the works.